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Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside) (Lab): Can the hon. Lady explain why she signed early-day motion 23, opposing house building in Hertfordshire?

Anne Main: I most certainly can; I am opposed to inappropriate development. Fortunately, I chose to ignore the rather throw-away remark about wanting to see a green field out of the window made by some hon. Members who oppose development, but I will not go down that route, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I could be seduced into arguing about why the proposal to put 15,000 houses in the green belt in my constituency is inappropriate, but I will not go there, or a 3.5 million sq ft—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. May I suggest that it would be inappropriate for that line of argument to continue?

Anne Main: I was carried away, Mr. Deputy Speaker, so let us return to the Hightown Praetorian housing association. It alone has 2,500 homes that are managed in Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire. It employs 350 staff and has an annual turnover of £15 million; clearly it is a large enterprise. It has a comprehensive set of development proposals for 450 extra houses. I am concerned that all that will be thrown into doubt if we do not resolve the matter today. Uncertainty about the funding will be damaging. The plans apply for the next three years and the association wants to know where it stands.

The homes that Hightown Praetorian provides serve a diverse range of needs; it offers homes under shared ownership, key worker and sheltered accommodation, a woman's refuge and a 24-hour support service. Other hon. Members have already questioned whether all the demands should be met by the local authority. I suggest, as my hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps) said, that we need the diverse approach that the housing association offers. We have a 24-hour support service, as I said, and an emergency night shelter, called Open Door, in the heart of St. Albans. I visited it only two weeks ago, Mr. Deputy Speaker. If you ever visit my constituency, I can honestly say that it is well worth dropping in; the organisation has wonderful volunteers who provide soup kitchens for the homeless.
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Discussions with Hightown Praetorian's manager revealed that the housing association was already concerned about its funding stream. How much more concerned will it be if the uncertainty is not resolved today? The association has taken many decisions since 1985 and it does not want them to be open to challenge or doubt. Clause 1(2) should resolve the problem. John Rouse, the housing association's chief executive, is very concerned and is doubtless watching our decision with great interest today. He has already written to all the housing associations and confirmed that new procedures are in place. He will advise them of any new time scales for decisions.

As other hon. Members would agree, it is always worrying when any business advises its customers of new time scales; it usually means delays. I do not want my local housing association to face delays, particularly in respect of the 450 houses it is intending to build in the next three years, so I am sure that right hon. and hon. Members will appreciate that we need to try to sort the muddle out. That is what the Bill is designed to do. Concerns have been expressed, but we require assurance and clarity.

I know that I am not alone—my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough has already said it—in generally abhorring retrospective legislation. Once we start going down the road of trying to tweak things that are in the past, we will face big problems. That applies to retrospective proposals for planning that seek perhaps to legitimise a building that has sprung up without permission or when the Chancellor attempts to claw back trust funds. People need to plan in the knowledge that the appropriate legal framework is in place and that no one will want to tweak it later.

I repeat that I abhor retrospective proposals generally, but this Bill is not primarily about that. I agree with the Minister who said that it was a tidying-up exercise and should be viewed in that light. Once we start to revisit and re-legislate, we will be in big trouble. It is highly reprehensible to pull the rug out from under the feet of people. The Bill, however, is about giving people more certainty about the future. I maintain my general opposition to retrospection, but the Bill will legitimise the current state of affairs, remove the element of doubt and uncertainty, free up the system and allow my housing corporation and others to get on with their business; there is much business to be done.

I do not give a resounding 10 out of 10 to all the dealings of the Housing Corporation—legitimate concerns about it have already been expressed today—or to all the activities of all housing associations. There are some good and some bad, and there are also some glaring inequalities in the allocation of funding, as in the case of Oxfordshire. Funding problems and inequalities also apply to various groupings. Housing associations should look more into that problem.

One glaring example of inequality is the plight of our ex-service personnel. Often the Housing Corporation or housing associations do not take decisions to help such people. If these organisations could be freed up from contemplating their navels and allowed to focus on relieving some of the glaring inequalities that underpin the plight of ex-service personnel who fall foul of the complex regulations, I would welcome that. Local connections are important. Many soldiers return to their locality, after being discharged from the Army and
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having been moved from base to base with their families, only to find that, unless they are homeless, they are not entitled, under housing association rules, to be placed on the register. They often face that difficulty only four weeks on from discharge. It is an impossible position to be in. I know that the Minister has already been approached about that problem, but—[Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I hope that the hon. Lady will accept the metaphor that she is stretching the elastic a little too far in the argument that she is now pursuing. She is getting too far away from the Bill.

Anne Main: I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but as you can see I am passionate about this, and I know that other hon. Members who support our armed forces feel the same.

I shall have to leave out the homeless ex-servicemen in my constituency, but homelessness is a big and glaring injustice. We must make sure that there is certainty and clarity now as a result of passing what seems to be a fairly minor retrospective amendment to the housing legislation. It should have been in place in the first place. If it allows housing associations and the Housing Corporation to get on with the job that they are supposed to do, it will have my support.

5.10 pm

Mr. Greg Hands (Hammersmith and Fulham) (Con): I am delighted to have been called in this debate as the Housing Corporation and the housing associations and registered social landlords that it oversees have a major impact on the lives of my constituents. According to the last census, 13.5 per cent. of Hammersmith and Fulham residents rent a property belonging to a housing association or another RSL, which is more than twice the national average. It is one of the highest rates in the United Kingdom, especially for a local authority that has not yet undertaken any significant large-scale voluntary transfers.

Our most important housing associations in Hammersmith and Fulham include the Notting Hill Housing Group, the Peabody Trust, and the Shepherds Bush Housing Association. Each has more than 1,000 housing units. The Notting Hill group alone has more than 4,000 homes in Hammersmith and Fulham. We have 49 different housing associations operating in all. The main RSL that will feature in my speech is the Notting Hill Housing Group. It has treated many of its tenants dreadfully in the recent past, and I wish to discuss the Bill's impact on them. Many tenants were treated so badly that they became activists in the general election for me last year, knocking on doors, stuffing envelopes and so on. In fact, they are the original Notting Hill Tories, converted to the blue cause not by lizards changing colour, as one sees on ridiculous Labour party leaflets, but by finding a candidate who takes an interest in their problems and complaints.

We all share an interest in seeing the Housing Corporation and housing associations operating effectively, so I welcome in general the Bill's provisions. However, I believe that we need a larger debate on the future of social housing and housing associations in general, and the Bill therefore represents something of a missed opportunity. Given the demand in the House for
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more discussion of these issues, it seems a great pity that a whole day of Government time has been allocated to debating essentially one paragraph of a technicality, even if it is an interesting technicality. I mentioned to many housing association tenants in Hammersmith and Fulham that this debate was coming. Certainly, a number are concerned that previous decisions made by the Housing Corporation may not have been legally valid. Equally, a number are interested in an opportunity to see some of those decisions reversed. So this kind of bureaucratic mistake does not reflect well on our public institutions, including Parliament, which passed the Bill in the first place.

I want to talk about some of the missed opportunities in the Bill, but first I want to mention its shocking cost—£1.50 for only 22 lines is the price recorded on the reverse by The Stationery Office, which represents incredibly poor value for money.

The first problem is the poor accountability of housing associations. The Bill is all about accountability, so this is indeed a missed opportunity. Let us contrast housing associations with councils as landlords. I am disappointed that the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) has departed because I want to say something about council management of homes.

The council has an advantage in being directly accountable in that it is, of course, elected. Obviously, it is not only its tenants who vote in council elections, but no candidate or local councillor can afford to ignore the voice of council tenants. In many London boroughs, the marginal wards can almost be defined as those that have a sizeable number of council tenants.

In the borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, the ward in which I live—Fulham Broadway—is a key marginal, largely because of the presence of the Clem Attlee estate, which is mostly council-owned. One of the most influential people in the borough is Val Barker, who chairs the Clem Attlee Rocque and Maton residents association, which she does very well, taking scrupulous care to remain politically neutral. Her voice is influential, but she does not have a powerful equivalent in neighbouring registered social landlord estates. We therefore need to do more to improve tenant involvement and RSLs' accountability to tenants. Council officers effectively deal with day-to-day matters on council estates, including repairs, the collection of refuse, the investigation of antisocial behaviour reports and so on. Most council tenants know that if things do not go well, they can call or contact their councillor. In turn, the council officer has a constitutional duty to address practical concerns by listening to the councillor, at the very least. That is not categorically not the case for housing associations. Better housing associations listen to cases brought by individual councillors, but many do not do so and go out of their way to obstruct councillors' inquiries.

To return to the Housing Corporation, such political influence is not afforded to housing association tenants. By contrast, private sector tenants, who lack council tenants' political clout, often have a more responsive landlord. We have all dealt with hundreds of cases in our constituencies involving nightmare private landlords. In my experience, however, I receive far fewer complaints about private landlords than about RSLs or the council,
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which leads me to conclude that private sector landlords are usually more responsive to problems and complaints.

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