Members present:

Andrew F Bennett, in the Chair
Sir Paul Beresford
Mr Clive Betts
Mr Brian H Donohoe
Mrs Gwyneth Dunwoody
Mrs Louise Ellman
Chris Grayling
Helen Jackson
Ms Oona King
Miss Anne McIntosh
Mr Bill O'Brien
Christine Russell
Mr Bill Wiggin


Examination of Witnesses

MS SALLY KEEBLE, a Member of the House, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, and MR MICHAEL FAULKNER, Division Manager, Housing, Private Rented Sector, Department for Transport, Local Government and The Regions, examined.


  1. Minister, may I welcome you to the Committee and apologise that we are running a bit late. Can I ask you to identify yourself and your team for the record, please?
  2. (Ms Keeble) I am Sally Keeble, I am Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State. This is an official, Michael Faulkner.

  3. Do you want to say anything by way of introduction or are you happy for us to go straight into questions?
  4. (Ms Keeble) I did have a statement but given that we are running short of time you might prefer just to go straight to questions.

  5. No, give us your statement since you have prepared it.
  6. (Ms Keeble) Okay. The issues around abandonment and low demand are clearly complex. We have come a long way in our understanding but still have more work to do. We set ourselves a target in January 2001 to turn round the incidence of low demand by 2010 and this timescale reflects the complexity and intractability of the problem. I just want to set out some of the measures that we have taken so far to deal with it. The PAT 7 report on unpopular housing produced nearly 40 recommendations and we are making progress on these. We are taking forward a range of measures to help local authorities and other stakeholders tackle problems linked to low demand and abandonment. For example, we recognise the activities of some private landlords and the effect that they have on the decline of neighbourhoods, so we are consulting on a discretionary licensing scheme in particular for private landlords in areas of low demand. We are reforming the way that local authorities help poor homeowners to repair their properties by giving them more flexibility in how they use the funding. We have already made it easier to declare renewal areas and carry out group repairs, and have further work to do on that as well. We have set ourselves a target to bring all social housing up to a decent standard in ten years. We have made the funding available to do this and we are encouraging local authorities to develop housing strategies to cover all housing tenures. We are also pressing ahead with our neighbourhood renewal agenda. By improving the quality of local services, engaging tenants and residents and improving the livability of neighbourhoods we can help to make them more desirable places to live again. Finally, we are using a planning system which is obviously a key to ensuring that we get redevelopment in low demand areas and we are using this both at a regional and local level.

    Chairman: Thank you very much indeed.

    Mr O'Brien

  7. Minister, you referred to the low demand areas and the problem areas, but in many of the high demand areas where voids are low compared to other international comparisons, have you any idea as to how we can reduce still further the voids? Is it cost-effective to try to do that in high demand areas?
  8. (Ms Keeble) Yes. Can I say I think there is a different issue in the high demand areas from the low demand areas and it is quite important to distinguish those. Certainly in the high demand areas there is an issue about empty properties and the need to make sure that they are brought back into use where they can be to make sure we have effective use of the housing stock and also we tackle the problem of homelessness. We have required local authorities as part of their HIP submissions to make reference to what they are doing about empty properties and it is also being looked at as a performance indicator for local authorities. There are measures being taken there but I would say I think it is a different scale of problem from the problems that we see up in the North where you have a complete collapse of the housing market and I think a different scale of action is required.

  9. That brings me to my next question. The vacancy rates appear to vary across tenures and regions and you say in the northern region we have more than our share of vacancy. Is this acceptable to your Department, the fact that we have this discrepancy across tenures and regions? What are you doing about it?
  10. (Ms Keeble) No. We are looking presently at the particular needs of those low demand areas. Of course it is a problem if there are empty properties in a high demand area. If you look over the past two years' figures at the vacancy rates in certain regions, in particular Yorkshire, Humberside, North East and North West, those have climbed to a particularly high level at a time when the vacancy rates elsewhere in the country have been declining. What is more, up in those regions the vacancy rates are not just in residential properties but in commercial properties too, and it is because of real difficulties in the market and different patterns there. That is why we are looking at measures like the licensing of private sector landlords and the renewal and regeneration strategies. We have been talking with the local authorities there very carefully about the problems that they are experiencing and have had discussions with them about their proposals for a Market Renewal Fund, which I am sure you have had brought to your attention as well.

  11. The Council of Mortgage Lenders told the Committee that the vacancies vary between private landlords and owner-occupiers and the rented sector.
  12. (Ms Keeble) Yes.

  13. Is there a possibility of introducing a mortgage lease arrangement to help people who have empty properties to rent those properties and keep them to a reasonable standard?
  14. (Ms Keeble) In terms of the different tenures, we are concerned across all the tenures and the discussions we have had with the local authorities and others are about looking for strategies that go across all the different housing tenures. Where you have a problem of low demand it does not just affect the council properties, it affects the private sector properties as well. The strategies for renewal and regeneration and the work that is being done, sometimes by local authorities and also, I have to say, by registered social landlords, is there to help the owner-occupiers, the private sector, as well as the local authority and the social sectors.

  15. In the figures that you supplied through the various publications, and we are obviously concerned about empty properties, but what is the margin of error that we should attach to the figures that have been provided by your Department on the number of empty homes?
  16. (Ms Keeble) The figures that we get would be snapshots. They can be figures taken, because they would be returns from local authorities, at a particular point in time.


  17. Could you tell me what is an empty home?
  18. (Ms Keeble) An empty home would be a home that is not occupied at the point in time when the census is done. I take your point the problem comes when it stops being an empty property and there is a long-term problem.

  19. Does it count as empty if it does not have any furniture in it or does it count as occupied if it has got furniture in it?
  20. (Ms Keeble) I would say it is empty if there is nobody living in it. The issue then is why it is empty. A two per cent vacancy rate, I think that is called a transactional value, a fictional level, a level which would be expected given the scale of time it takes to fill a property to re-let and so on and bring it back into use. If you looked at -----

    Mr O'Brien

  21. What about secondary or holiday homes, would you say they were empty?
  22. (Ms Keeble) They are clearly not occupied at a point in time.

  23. What about Members of Parliament who have flats in London and are away for three months, would you say they are empty?
  24. (Ms Keeble) No, because those are occupied for part of the week. We do not include second homes and holiday homes because they are occupied for at least part of the year. If you look at the level at which a void rate becomes problematic, which is probably more useful in deciding what to do about empty properties, up to two per cent you would accept as being at a level which does not indicate that there is a major problem, but once you get over four per cent you are starting to see real problems of low demand and problems that have got to be tackled in a much more substantial way. I think that might be a more useful way to look at void rates than to ask how long is a property empty.

  25. Finally, could I put it to you that the Office of the Information Commissioner said that local authorities are acting ultra vires if they use personal data from ----
  26. (Ms Keeble) I am sorry, I cannot hear you very well.

  27. If they use personal data from the Council Tax Register as part of their strategy for tackling empty homes. When will you make a regulatory reform order in order to enable councils to use this information legally? We are told that councils cannot use the information they have on their Council Tax Registers in their effort to tackle empty homes. It means that there has got to be legislation if local authorities are going to use that kind of information. Have you any intentions to -----
  28. (Ms Keeble) We have not got proposals now to do that, no.


  29. Wait a minute, your memorandum which you sent in September said that you were pursuing fairly vigorously this problem, so you were actually trying to get it sorted out between the Office of the Information Commissioner, the Empty Homes Agency and yourselves, a policy.
  30. (Ms Keeble) I think there is some Cabinet Office work which is being done on this which was perhaps referred to in the memorandum. We do not currently have legislation, as it were, on the stocks to deal with that particular issue.

    Mr O'Brien

  31. It is becoming an issue because some local authorities have obtained counsel's opinion which suggests that they can use that information and, therefore, they are in collision with the advice that has been given from the data protection people. It is important that some definition be made by the Government so that this problem will not cost a lot of money in combatting advice and challenging other incidents. Have you any idea as to when that will be resolved?
  32. (Ms Keeble) There is a Cabinet Office report on it which is supposed to be published in the new year, so hopefully we will see a way forward out of that.

    Christine Russell

  33. Can I ask you, Minister, about the fiscal incentives that have been introduced to try to bring these homes back into use. There was a whole raft of measures in the Budget earlier this year, but when the Committee were doing our site visit in the North West of England the response that we had from most people we spoke to was incentives, like the reduction of VAT, for instance, are only really going to have a minimal impact. Have you got any evidence of how effective these new measures may be?
  34. (Ms Keeble) The most recent one will obviously be the tax incentives for conversion of flats over shops. This has only just come into effect so we would not know yet. The other one which is probably going to be of some of the greatest use will be the one about stamp duty which has just been announced which, again, we are not going to see in effect for some time. We would not have stats yet on those particular issues.

  35. So any scepticism is premature?
  36. (Ms Keeble) We will obviously be looking at it because that is clearly the aim, to get improvements there.

  37. Has your Department done an actual estimate of how many homes you feel could be brought back into use by the introduction of 100 per cent Council Tax being levied on empty homes?
  38. (Ms Keeble) No, we have not got that estimate.

    Ms King

  39. Could I go back to the introduction of tax relief for empty properties over shops. What do you think of some of the suggestions that the proposals are too complex? I wonder what assessment you have made of these criticisms and of the likely take-up and whether you or the Treasury are looking at any possible simplification?
  40. (Ms Keeble) The measures have only just come in quite recently. As I said before, we do not have an indication yet as to the extent to which it is being taken up. It is a very generous allowance so I am quite surprised by the criticisms that you make of it.

  41. Obviously it is from groups that represent landlords, for example the British Property Federation, and what they have said is there are restrictions on the types of property which qualify and also the conversion will only qualify for the allowance according to quite specific rules around the date when expenditure was first incurred and whether it can be reasonably expected that the flat will be let for less than a specified sum. These are some of the criticisms that there are and I just wonder what the Department's take on this is?
  42. (Ms Keeble) I certainly have not seen those criticisms come back from that group despite the fact that we have quite regular meetings and discussions with them. Certainly if they were to bring that back we would look at it. The arrangements that have been made are very generous. We will look and see how they are taken up and if changes are required then I am sure we can look at it.

    Christine Russell

  43. The National Housing Federation told us that they have been seeking a reduced VAT rate for repairs to existing social housing stock for the last three years but nothing has been done about it. Would you like to comment on that?
  44. (Ms Keeble) Obviously all the decisions about that are taken by the Treasury.

  45. But has your Department made any representations to the Treasury that this would be a socially beneficial thing to do?
  46. (Ms Keeble) If you are looking at issues about bringing properties back into use -

    Christine Russell: To stop them being abandoned. If an RSL, for instance, could do some repairs. In Manchester we saw some quite low priced cosmetic repairs to improve some streets that had not cost an awful lot of money but had probably saved those streets from going over the edge.

    Ms King: It is about incentives for investment, is it not?

    Christine Russell

  47. Yes.
  48. (Ms Keeble) I think the same arguments apply also to the whole range of need for improvement in low demand and inner city areas. All the decisions about VAT will obviously have to be taken by the Treasury.


  49. But have you made representations to the Treasury?
  50. (Ms Keeble) No, we have not.

    Mr Betts

  51. We have been round the country and looked at some of the problems of low demand and this involves a fairly wide number of areas in the North of the country. The Government has made a commitment to turn these areas around by 2010, is that a realistic target?
  52. (Ms Keeble) I think it is, yes. It is a huge problem and we do have to be able to ensure that we have a viable housing market in those parts of the country which currently are subject to abandonment and extremely low demand.

  53. There have been representations from the National Housing Federation for a Housing Market Renewal Fund. Is that a priority for you? Are you making representations for the resources to set that up?
  54. (Ms Keeble) That is being looked at and I have to say it is not just from the Federation, quite a number of local authorities have also come together and have put in a form of submission which is being actively considered. The funding for that would be considered under the Spending Review. There have been very active discussions about the proposals for the Market Renewal Fund.

  55. So the Department supports the concept?
  56. (Ms Keeble) We have not formally reached a decision on it yet because the submission has come in quite recently. There are also some issues around the proposals for the Market Renewal Fund. There are discussions about exactly what the money would be used for because there are a range of measures they are talking about using both on capital and on revenue. One of the other factors would be who would be responsible for such restructuring because there is a strong feeling that it should not just be the local authorities, there needs to be a much wider body, and it would need to be looked at on a sub-regional basis rather than just a local authority basis. There are quite a lot of issues that still have to be resolved about the way a Fund would operate and exactly what it would do. The overwhelming question is obviously the one about the level of the Fund and that is being looked at as part of the Spending Review.

  57. Looking at this 2010 target, to some extent, it seems to imply that all areas can be turned round and saved. Is the reality that in some places with economic decline, jobs have gone, there are not as many people economically in those areas, and should we simply accept that is the natural consequence of economic and social change and areas will decline and wholesale demolition will be needed, and we have to manage that, rather than pretend we can turn it round?
  58. (Ms Keeble) I do not think that is an acceptable solution for quite a number of different reasons, one is that the causes of low demand and abandonment are quite diverse. Certainly they include economic decline, and that is most obvious in the coal field areas where the mines have gone, so the economic reasons behind the settlements are not there. There is also issues about obsolete housing, where the housing is simply not up to standard and there is no way it could be repaired, that goes probably back to VAT. There is already evidence, you have probably seen it, that quite a lot of money has been spent bringing property up to value only to find that it still cannot be let and it has the pulled down. There are also issues about neighbourhood management. Again, you have probably seen areas where there has been wholesale abandonment because of the high crime rates and the area has become such that people do not want to live there. There is quite a number of different reasons for decline and low demand, some of them can be managed, some of them are about changing and rebuilding the housing because they are of a type that people do not want to live in, and some of it is about economic pressures. You have to tackle each of those different problems head on. In some areas, of course, there will need to be demolition and on quite a substantial scale, but in some areas it is possible to turn those areas round, and I think we should focus on doing that.

  59. Picking you up on that point, for whatever reasons, along with other measures, there will be a need for substantial demolition?
  60. (Ms Keeble) Yes.

  61. All of the indications are that no one has any money to undertake the demolition.
  62. (Ms Keeble) This year and next year the planned demolition is something like 23,000 or 24,000 properties, that is already in the pipeline. That is very, very substantial, it is about 20,000 this year in local authority and about 3,000 private sector and next year it is about 19,000 local authority and about the same in private sector. There is demolition already going on. There is also some reprovision going on. If you look, for example, at the Chilwell Housing Action Trust, which you might have been to, there they have taken down a number of tower blocks and they have provided a smaller number of units, that is a really good example of how they coped with the changing population. Most of the new units, or a large number of them have been sheltered housing because the population has aged and they have completely reprovided a certain sector of housing. That has, perhaps, been an example of the way that quite careful thinking can be done to bring areas back into use.

  63. Going back to demolition, most of the demolition plans are in the public sector, this is a particular problem the Committee has been faced with when we went round, in terms of the scale of the problem in the private sector, they are really not resourced to tackle that. Every authority we have spoken to said the same, we have a problem, we can see it coming at us but the resources we have are not going to tackle it, they are only going to scratch the surface on the problems in the private sector. On top of that we have CPO powers which are in urgent need of revision. Where we have local authority sector properties with right-to-buy within them that is now causing a major problem, people are coming in at the last minute and buying properties, pushing the cost of sorting them out through the roof.
  64. (Ms Keeble) First of all, the point about the funds for the private sector, as I said we are looking at the Market Renewal Fund and that would cover all sectors, the funds for that, that is part of the discussion about the Spending Review. However, we have simplified the arrangements for renewal areas and those, obviously, cover different sectors. It is also the case that in some of the regeneration work that is being done, in Kensington New Deal for Communities, which I think the Select Committee went to see, work has been done there across sectors, with the Housing Association being the agent for that, which I think has been a particularly innovative way of dealing with it. You are right, there are problems, particularly in some of the ex coal field areas and some of the activities of private sector land who brought up huge swathes of properties which are now derelict and which the owners refuse to do up. We are looking at one particular development there to tackle quite a number of those little villages and try and tackle and overcome some of the problems of abandonment and dereliction there. As part of the planning Green Paper, which is being launched even as we speak now, we also have our proposals for simplifying the CPO procedures. Under the right-to-buy we do not have proposals to change the right-to-buy. We recognise, particularly in Tower Hamlets that has been a problem on one estate, where people have exercised their right-to-buy in very large numbers. Part of our housing funding from this year on included a low demand indicator, which has been the first time that the problems have of low demand have been recognised and those financial ---


  65. What is a low demand indicator?
  66. (Ms Keeble) It allows for extra funding for those local authorities that have a problem with low demand. It accounts for two per cent of the total funding, which is quite modest now, but it is the first time that the extra pressures caused for housing authorities by the problem of low demand has actually been recognised.

    Ms King

  67. When the Deputy Prime Minister visited Tower Hamlets last year and saw that on the Ocean New Deal for Communities, for example, most of the housing allocation money was going to be wiped out in buying up people's right-to-buy or allowing them to exercise that right. He said that one solution might be what they did in Scotland, which was to suspend the right-to-buy in areas where regeneration schemes have been announced. Are you looking at that as a possible option?
  68. (Ms Keeble) We have not looked at changing any of the right-to-buy provisions.


    Mr Betts

  69. The Home Swaps scheme in Salford we have heard about, do you know how much it would cost to widen the coverage of this type of initiative to all low demand areas? Is that something that you are seeking do and obtain funds from the Treasury for?
  70. (Ms Keeble) I am not familiar with that. Can you just describe it for me?


  71. What happened is that in Langworthy in Salford you have two blocks of turn-of-the-century housing, one on one side of the main road and one on the other side. Both received substantial sums of money to modernise them and bring them up to the date, but they are now suffering from low demand. The intention of Salford Council is to clear one block and then try and preserve the other block. The people in the block to be cleared are being offered the chance to move to similar property and to retain the equity that they had in the old house by taking it into the new one.
  72. (Ms Keeble) We have not made an estimation of an extension of that programme. I would say, however, that in almost all of the areas where there is regeneration of housing estates there is a major issue of making sure that people are prepared to move in some instances, if you have to clear and reprovide housing. I would say that is obviously one of the issues round the Ocean Estate as well in Tower Hamlets. It is well recognised and it is one of the big issues that comes up in housing management for any regeneration scheme.

  73. Salford was very pleased with the Home Swaps scheme, although they had to admit about only two or three people had taken advantage of it so far.
  74. (Ms Keeble) How many?

  75. Two or three people have taken advantage of it but they hope for many more. It appears to have taken a long time for your department and others to clear the scheme as an experimental one. When this Committee was in Manchester we had one person who was very keen to impress on us that she had been trapped in one side of Langworthy unable to sell her house for the last 10 years and she was now being offered the opportunity to move across the road and to be trapped on other side of the main road probably for the next 10 years and she was not too happy with the scheme. Do you have any comments on that?
  76. (Ms Keeble) There are obviously real difficulties for people who are stuck in owner-occupied houses in areas of low demand because it is virtually impossible for them to move and because a house loses its value in such a dramatic way they cannot get the equity out of their property to move to an area of their choice. It seems to me that if we are looking at dealing with a low demand problem and regenerating housing we have to make sure, one, that we provide people with the type of housing that they are going to want to live in for a period of time, which can sometimes provide dramatically different housing, for example a shift from family housing to housing for older people. That we also provide people with some greater ability, if they do want to move or move out. Also, this is going to be the real trick of Market Renewal Fund, in most of these areas what we are trying to do is bring value back into areas that have none so that the housing market can operate as it would normally down here. That is going to be an extremely difficult thing to do. If we are seriously going to turnaround the low demand areas and get the market operating properly back in the North-East and North-West and Yorkshire and Humberside that is the intervention that the government has to make.

    Mrs Ellman

  77. We have seen streets which have been part of government initiatives over the last 30 years that are still facing great difficulty, what has the government learned from its mistakes?
  78. (Ms Keeble) One is that it is not enough just to repair properties and think that that is the sum total of the problem. You can bring houses up to a certain standard but that sometimes does not deal with the underlying issues which might go very much wider, as I indicated before. The second lesson is that if you are going to renew those low demand areas you have to look at the wider strategies, that includes looking at employment and looking at neighbourhood management. If you look at some of the very interesting work that has been done in some of New Deal for Communities areas by some of the housing associations, they have tackled the wider problems and they have managed to create sustainable communities. I think those are probably the two biggest ones actually, not going for short-term gains and tackling the wider problems that are involved in an area.

  79. Where would you say the greatest success has been achieved in housing renewal and wider regeneration?
  80. (Ms Keeble) I think despite their very turbulent beginnings I think the Housing Action Trust have done some very good work because they have reprovided housing to a very high standard, a remarkably high standard. They have also tackled some of the wider issues about job provision, local communities and things like that. They have also empowered communities, which I know sounds very vague, tenants have become much more engaged in managing their own estates and that helps to sustain them over the longer term. I have to say they have also had vast amounts of money.

  81. Are there any particular places, can you name any particular place it has been successful?
  82. (Ms Keeble) We might be here all day. I think Castleway have done extraordinary work, both in providing a wide range of housing and getting private sector housing into what was once truly a big council estate. They have also managed to tackle some of health problems for the local community and educational problem. They have improved the infant mortality rate simply by changing the way the services are managed on the housing estate. They have got school standards up as well because they have worked with the schools, which quite a lot of housing areas have not done. The Tower Hamlets Housing Action Trust has done well in terms of providing a range of different types of housing in place of tower blocks.


  83. A success in a low demand area?
  84. (Ms Keeble) In Liverpool, the Housing Action Trust there has done extremely well again in reproviding and taking the tenants with them and in changing tower blocks into some very good sheltered housing, so that they have kept track of the changing in community and they have thought in a very substantial way about how to do it. I think some of the New Deal for Communities, I am just thinking of one, I think the one in Liverpool has done well, and the Kensington one.

    Mrs Ellman

  85. Who has made that judgment?
  86. (Ms Keeble) Who has made it?

  87. The judgment?
  88. (Ms Keeble) That they have done well? If you ask me which ones I think have done well then I make that judgment looking at what they have achieved.

  89. Although it has hardly started to achieve anything in Liverpool.
  90. (Ms Keeble) I think what they have done, which is interesting, is to get partnership working across tenures, which is very difficult. In quite a lot of areas you go and people can say, "we cannot do anything because that is owned by a private landlord, that is housing association, that is council". There is a problem of mixed tenures. I think Kensington New Deal for Communities has recognised that because it has found a model for tackling it.

  91. Are you looking at models or actually concrete achievements?
  92. (Ms Keeble) You have to have a model in place to be able to do anything at all. If you look at some of the other areas of low demand where they have not been able to get that then the areas have not been able to make progress. You can look at the coal field communities in Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire where you have small isolated places that have not been able to get a model to really tackle some of the difficulties they have. I take your point that the Liverpool New Deal for Communities is early days, but they have a model which is able to tackle some of the difficult intractable issues they have and we have to follow through.

    Chairman: I think if the Committee is going to get through all of the questions we have to be a bit quicker with our questions.


    Ms King

  93. I am sorry to bring you back to this but I really did want an answer of what your Department is going to do with right-to-buy, are you saying you will not consider suspending it, what are you going to do to ensure that government money, say 25 million in this case, does not just go down the drain, it is not used to improve social housing stock because of right-to-buy?
  94. (Ms Keeble) Are you talking particularly about the Ocean Estate?

  95. I am talking about anywhere where a regeneration initiative is announced, everyone thinks, that is a really good idea, I will get my discount and use the government subsidy. Instead of it going to improving housing for the community I will get a discount as an individual, sell it in two years' time and the housing stock has not improved.
  96. (Ms Keeble) I have to say that the one area where that particular issue has been raised has been the Ocean Estate. I have not had that one raised elsewhere.


  97. Oona King wants a solution to the Ocean Estate, which the Committee had a look at and were appalled by it.
  98. (Ms Keeble) I under that. We are not looking again at the right-to-buy. We would have to look with Tower Hamlets at what the other options would be for renewing that estate. We are not looking at suspending the right-to-buy.

    Ms King

  99. Choice based lettings, is the result that the most difficult tenants become concentrated in the worst areas?
  100. (Ms Keeble) No, I would not have thought so. The choice based lettings, the entire aim of that is to make sure that all people, all housing tenants in the social sector have more choice about where they live. That would mean that it is not just the people who can wait longest to see what is on offer, that should also apply to people who are coming up through the homelessness procedure.

  101. Do you think the policies, powers and funding streams currently available to you are sufficiently flexible to take account of volatile housing markets where things rapidly change? You spoke about a housing market rapidly collapsing, what do you think should be done to identify neighbourhoods on the brink of that collapse to stop them slipping into decline?
  102. (Ms Keeble) There has been some work done in particular areas to find ways of making very fast intervention. On the wider question, have we got all of the mechanisms in place, I think the one issue that we need to really deal with is the one of Market Renewal Fund.


  103. When you talk about the fast intervention what in government terms is fast?
  104. (Ms Keeble) That is really about seeing when one property in a street has been empty for period of time and making sure that there is tenant in it quickly before that spreads.

  105. What do you mean by quickly, a couple of weeks or a couple of months?
  106. (Ms Keeble) I would put it in months.

  107. How many months then?
  108. (Ms Keeble) I do not want to be drawn into months. If you are talking about letting a property you have to repair the property, bring it back to ---

  109. The reason I am pressing you is there are some evidence that suddenly the skids go under a neighbourhood and it goes down very quickly and therefore you need rapid intervention. What I was looking for from you was some assurance that when you were talking about fast a local authority could get action within two or to months otherwise it is going to take too long and the problem just gets bigger and bigger.
  110. (Ms Keeble) Yes. I would say months. Can I just say on that, if you are talking about skids going under a particular neighbourhood and it going into decline, there are quite a lot of measures which are in place now, or which are coming into place, which would help deal with that and should help stop that very quick deterioration. For example, the once we get the licensing for private sector landlords I am sure that that will help. I think also the arrangements for the neighbourhoods wardens, street wardens will also help, because they act as an early warning system for problems in the area and they deal also with some of the dereliction, which is the first sign of an area going seriously into decline. We have also produced guidance for fast tracking and the eviction of problem tenants. There are quite a few extra mechanisms that local authorities can actually use to help to manage estates more effectively and help to stop that very sudden collapse that you can see in an area. I take your point that no one might see it coming, but I would also argue that in some instances the early warning signs are there.

    Christine Russell

  111. Can I continue on this theme and ask you whether in the main you feel the problem is problem landlords or problem tenants?
  112. (Ms Keeble) I think it is both. The reason why the problem landlords are problem landlords is because by and large what they are doing is they are buying up houses which have virtually no capital value, they are buying them up for a few thousand pounds, and they are buying because of their housing benefit value - I think the term is benefit harvesting - they are simply using the income stream from the housing benefit and they are letting to people who have sometimes been evicted from council properties for anti-social behaviour. You have bad landlords who do not manage their properties letting to very difficult tenants, that is when you get the real disasters.

  113. Do you feel then that the Rent Service is culpable because after all it is the Rent Service that allowed these high rents to be accepted for housing benefit purposes in slump properties in many cases?
  114. (Ms Keeble) I have to say I would not blame the Rent Service for that. If you are looking at somebody who has bought a house, and you have probably heard the information as much as I have, for a few thousand pounds the amount of money that they get in for housing benefit is going to cover the cost.

  115. We heard that, you go down the pub, you buy it and you recoup that value within six months.
  116. (Ms Keeble) I do not think that is a Rent Service problem. That is entirely a problem of people spotting an easy way to make money, which is you buy up cheap properties and you let them to people who then get housing benefit.


  117. Surely if you buy a house for 4,000 you should not be able to claim that the economic rent for that property is 80 a week and the Rent Service approve it, should you?
  118. (Ms Keeble) For the kind of prices that people are buying properties for they can let at virtually any price. I do not think that you can shift the problem off on to the Rent Service. The problem seems to me to lie fair and square with people who are using a loophole to make a very lucrative living. The way to deal with it is through the licensing of private sector landlords, which is what we consulted about and what we are hoping to legislate for, because that would link the payment of housing benefit, and this is one of the issues that is raised in the consultation document, the payment of housing benefit to the type of management services and to the way that the landlord manages property, so if they not manage the property properly and they are completely irresponsible as landlords they would not be able to get housing benefit.

    Mr Wiggin

  119. I was just curious about the difficult tenants, if you come down too hard on landlords where will these difficult tenants live?
  120. (Ms Keeble) Of course there is an issue about where people live but the point is that the landlords should not simply be putting people with profound difficulties into a particular area and then leaving them without any support or any form of management at all. Of course people have to live somewhere but the properties also have to be managed and the landlord has to take some responsibility for the way in which he organises and supports a whole range of properties.

  121. That is not quite right, the problem is you can have a problem family that will begin the whole process of decline in an area. At least in this case that we discussed now the landlords are responsible for the ownership of the area, so they are fulfilling quite a useful function, I am sure you accept that.
  122. (Ms Keeble) I do not think in the cases where you see the decline of areas because of this type of landlordism, it is not the case you have a road and one person in it and everyone else is owner-occupied. What you have are streets where people are moving out, for all of the reasons we have talked about because of low demand, and then you have whole streets being bought up or large numbers of properties and then quite substantial numbers of anti-social tenants being placed into those properties. I think it is a fairly well recognised cycle of decline that is affecting particular areas of the North. I have to say that I think the real route into it is through private landlord licensing and the link with that through then to housing benefit.


  123. When will that happen?
  124. (Ms Keeble) The consultation is out now.

  125. When will it happen?
  126. (Ms Keeble) We would hope to be able to get something in the Queen's speech, obviously we cannot make a commitment on that.

  127. If it was in the Queen's speech next year it could be implemented in another 12 months after that?
  128. (Ms Keeble) Yes.

  129. Policy Action Team segment came up with this idea that in low demand areas local authorities should have a development strategy, was one of these strategies one that was on the bonfire yesterday?
  130. (Ms Keeble) Local authorities are expected to have quite a number of different strategies, one is a community strategy. We are now asking them specifically about empty properties.

  131. This is strategy that is to stay. Are you happy that the Council of Mortgage Lenders, the Housing Regeneration Companies and the Urban Regeneration Companies are all tied into this strategy?
  132. (Ms Keeble) If you mean are they working together properly, I am sure you can point to areas where they are not but I would say that increasingly in the areas that we have seen the different measures that the government is making to ensure that they are working together are working and it is happening.

  133. Do you have the Home Office on board? There is some evidence that in placing asylum seekers there is distorting in the market in some of these low demand areas?
  134. (Ms Keeble) We are working closely with the Home Office in quite a number of different areas.

  135. About what asylum seekers? Shall we just put "pause" in the record?
  136. (Ms Keeble) Obviously we do not have a particular responsibility for housing asylum seekers.

  137. Would you like to give us a note on this because I am conscious of the time?
  138. (Ms Keeble) Okay. Can I just say one thing about the work of the Home Office, we do work closely with the Home Office on a whole range of different areas, in particular in the neighbourhood and street warden schemes, there is very close working there and in the neighbourhood renewal areas as well.

    Mrs Ellman

  139. How does the government monitor how well regional housing policies, government offices and Regional Development Agencies work together on housing issues?
  140. (Ms Keeble) We obviously monitor the way in which the regional strategies are implemented and also how the regional plans come forward for housing.

  141. Do you look at how those bodies work together?
  142. (Ms Keeble) In what sense?

  143. Work together in relation to housing issues?
  144. (Ms Keeble) We certainly look at the way in which the different agencies cooperate in preparing the strategies for housing. We also monitor the work that local housing authorities do and also we obviously, through the Housing Corporation, we look at what the housing associations do as well.

  145. What is the role of Regional Development Agencies in housing issues?
  146. (Ms Keeble) The Regional Development Agencies responsibility would really be through their role in looking at regeneration and they would also have to take into account the housing market as part of their assessment of the overall economic reforms of an area, the housing market as part of the local economy.

  147. Is the government looking at how Regional Development Agencies are linked with housing authorities in making that assessment?
  148. (Ms Keeble) We would expect them to work together in putting together the regional plans, yes.

  149. Do you monitor them?
  150. (Ms Keeble) I am not sure about monitoring arrangements I can certainly give you a note on that.

    Mr Betts

  151. Some of us believe that the changes to PPG3 were very important and a welcome step. We have been a bit disappointed that information we received from the RICS and the Empty Homes Agency on our trip to the northwest where we were told that in many cases it was not being implemented, there was a lot land available, brown field sites in some authorities crying out for redevelopment but housing authorities next door or even the same authority were approving planning permission in green field areas. What is your view about this? What do you think has happened?
  152. (Ms Keeble) There is obviously some outstanding planning consents and we do not have plans to revoke those, there is always going to be a lag time in the policy coming into effect. I would question whether the assessment that it is not working is based on recent decisions or whether it is the carrying forward of consents that were given before the PPG3 was actually passed. In terms of building it it is still quite a new PPG.

  153. Are you monitoring the situation about new permissions being given which might appear to be contrary to the PPG3?
  154. (Ms Keeble) New permissions, we will be monitoring them over time, yes.

  155. Are you monitoring them now?
  156. (Ms Keeble) We will be monitoring them.

  157. Are you monitoring them now?
  158. (Ms Keeble) Yes, I am sure we are.

    Mr Betts: Can I follow that up, as well as authorities not giving new permissions on sites where brown field sites exist they are also supposed to be revising their housing development plans and where land that was allocated for housing in the new PPG3 falls outside the scope of that they should be removing those applications and chasing the destination of that land. Is that happening? Are you monitoring that? Can you can tell us how much lands is being removed for housing allocation as a result?

    (Ms Keeble) Yes, it is happening. However, there is a problem here because whilst the local authorities change their plans that does not mean that existing planning consents are necessarily revoked.

  159. I understand that. I am talking about allocations for the future, where land is zoned for housing under the past PPG3 it should not be zoned under the current policy therefore it should be removed as land so designated and that land is owned for future use?
  160. (Ms Keeble) That has happened in some areas, particularly ones that I can quote are Houlton, Oldham, South Lakeland and Bolton. It is happening.

  161. That leaves an awful loft authorities where it is not happening. Could you give us a note on how many authorities have taken steps?
  162. (Ms Keeble) We can certainly do that.

    Mr Betts: How much land has been so far removed?

    Christine Russell

  163. Can I just ask you if you are really monitoring. There has been really quite a disastrous planning appeal decision in North Cheshire that is going to permit loads of new houses to be built when there are huge tracks of brown field sites in the middle of Warrington that could well do with regeneration and yet this is a very recent decision. What monitoring is going on? All of the local authorities round Cheshire are very nervous after that very recent decision.
  164. (Ms Keeble) Yes. It would be quite wrong to comment on an individual case and obviously planning inspectors also have to make their decisions on a case by case basis. The Greenfield Direction mean local authorities would have to notify the secretary of state if there are housing proposals on larger green field sites, even where those sites were allocated, the plans, there is monitoring and report back. I would say that where there is an individual case that will have been taken I think in this case by an individual planning inspector on that particular case.


  165. Do you think your government regional offices are really up to actually predicting how many houses are needed in a region?
  166. (Ms Keeble) There is obviously quite a long process before you finally agree on regional allocations, and in some areas that is still under discussion. I would just say that there are quite some complications about housing allocations.

  167. Take the northwest, it has too many houses, a very substantial number of houses that cannot be filled and yet the prediction is that a lot of new ones should be built.
  168. (Ms Keeble) Yes. That particular one has not been settled yet. I think the reason why is it is a region that wants a higher allocation and the reason, as I understand it, that they want it is because they say whilst they have an oversupply of housing or what would appear to be an oversupply of housing, they have the wrong type of housing, and they therefore want a more diverse range of housing stock, so that is the reasoning behind that. That particular case is still being looked at.

  169. In the southeast, let us take another example, I understand that Hastings wanted to use some of the empty homes to bring them back into use and cross off the number of houses that the government office wanted provided in that region. Should Hastings not have been able to use the existing empty homes, are bringing them back into use to avoid having to build all that many new homes?
  170. (Ms Keeble) What they have done in the Hastings case, this is why that is being scrutinised, is there has been some double counting of the properties concerned so that is why there has been an issue round the Hastings plan.

  171. This Committee has been pursuing the question of gap funding for some time, the new schemes, almost all, are very much biassed against housing. We were told that in some of these areas where we renewables should be taking place gap funding could be quite important. Can you give us any good news on gap funding?
  172. (Ms Keeble) This is obviously tied up with the state aid discussion as well. There have been careful discussions in Brussels and there is some progress being made on that, albeit very slow.

  173. Is it progress on the housing side? I think it was Chris Brown who gave us evidence that some of the schemes in Manchester were being vetoed because 75 per cent of the scheme was housing, and that was not acceptable under the new rules.
  174. (Ms Keeble) I was not aware of that, I have to say.

  175. Perhaps you could give us a note on that.
  176. (Ms Keeble) I will look at that.

  177. Documents, or reports, came out yesterday about the problems in Burnley, Oldham and other places like that. How far do you feel there is a contradiction that in somewhere like Burnley some of these homes are being abandoned and yet probably within the ethnic minority community there is more growth in the population, more demand for housing. Is segregation part of the problem?
  178. (Ms Keeble) Of abandonment?

  179. That we have on the one hand an increasing demand for certain neighbourhoods and an abandonment in other neighbourhoods.
  180. (Ms Keeble) The demand for certain neighbourhoods ----

  181. When we went up to Burnley we saw two neighbourhoods of almost identical housing, one neighbourhood had a high ethnic population within it, the other did not, and it appeared that one had a very weak, absolutely collapsing housing market, and the other had a relatively strong housing market, and it appeared there was segregation between the two communities.
  182. (Ms Keeble) I have to say I have seen exactly the same in Rochdale, and those areas which thrive are largely because the properties still have a high value, because they are highly sought after, partly because there are great restrictions in the supply of them, and they are close to the facilities the community wants. So I think you have different markets working in different parts of a single area. I do think, quite regardless of that, there is a real issue about segregation, it is something that the Department has been looking at. We have been looking at the whole problems surrounding race and housing. My colleague, Charlie Falconer, has been looking at that, and we have strategies and proposals for dealing with those issues. We have also put requirements on local authorities and housing associations around dealing with some of the problems around race and housing.

  183. While you are talking about the Minister for Planning, he is presumably announcing the new Green Paper on Planning today and presumably with that will be the daughter document on CPOs?
  184. (Ms Keeble) That is right, and I did refer to that previously.

  185. So you think the problem with CPOs is now solved?
  186. (Ms Keeble) I think we have some proposals, yes, to speed it up.

    Ms King

  187. Can I ask for a note on the issue around segregation and the work your Department is doing?

(Ms Keeble) We will certainly provide you with a copy of the document.

Chairman: On that note, thank you very much for your evidence.