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27 Nov 2007 : Column 155

Sir Paul Beresford: May I explain to the Minister that in my area both of my Conservative local councils are meeting their targets and building the houses? It is not the numbers that concern them, but the location. They are deeply concerned when they see, at an inquiry about a waste incinerator, a gentleman by the name of David Mellor looking at an area like Wisley, on the edge of the greenbelt, where the Royal Horticultural Society’s garden is located. David Mellor is fronting an organisation that has bought a lot of that land with the wish to put an incinerator on it and an eco-town around it. What is curious is that he seems to have some inside information very early. Perhaps the Minister might look over her shoulder.

Yvette Cooper: The hon. Gentleman knows that I cannot comment on individual planning applications or on any proposals for eco-towns at this stage in the process. However, we need every council in every part of the country to recognise that they need to increase their ambitions for more homes. Faced with the growing need for affordable housing and for housing across the board, every region in the country needs additional housing.

Opposition Members should take the opportunity to change their position, back more homes and back the extra investment that we need. Let them pledge today to support this unprecedented level of investment in new social and shared-ownership housing. Let them back plans for £1.9 billion of investment in infrastructure, and back plans for a community infrastructure levy for councils to raise the additional cash, as we have set out in the Bill. I urge them to pledge today that they would not cut that additional funding.

Let Opposition Members reconsider and support the Bill that will help us deliver the extra homes in the long run. The central proposal to bring together public land and public housing money has been widely supported. The Local Government Association says that it supports the broad aims of the Bill. Shelter says that it supports the creation of the Homes and Communities Agency. A wide range of organisations involved in regeneration and housing across the country have supported the Bill. It is important that it links regeneration principles and the building of communities, as well as the building of more homes. It is also about helping us to deliver more affordable homes, get more bang for our bucks and support more homes overall.

Why on earth do Opposition Members want to vote against proposals that deliver a better deal for housing association tenants? Why on earth do they want to vote against plans that will help tenants who are not getting their repairs done? Why do they want to vote against a Bill that gives Army veterans fair access to social housing or to homelessness assistance? Why do they want to vote against a Bill that gives councils a greater ability to deal with antisocial behaviour? Why do they oppose a Bill that will help this country to build the affordable homes that it badly needs? Why on earth do they want to oppose the Bill? For the sake of first-time buyers in the future, for the sake of families waiting on council waiting lists, for the sake of all those in need of more, better and more sustainable housing, the Labour Government are introducing the Bill today, and I urge the whole House to support it.

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4.8 pm

Grant Shapps (Welwyn Hatfield) (Con): I beg to move,

At 169 pages and 280 clauses with 10 schedules, the Bill is particularly large. The fact that the explanatory notes stretch to 121 pages suggests that it is probably also overly complex. What does the Bill say? One of the first things it tells us is that the Housing Minister intends to merge the Housing Corporation with English Partnerships to form the new Homes and Communities Agency.

After the Government spent £167 billion on quangos in the past year alone, perhaps the Minister has finally realised that getting rid of a quango would be a good thing to do. But does she not realise that more bureaucracy will not equal more homes? Sadly, if one wades through the Bill to page 36, one discovers that the Government could not help themselves. Clause 80 creates a brand-new quango, the Office for Tenants and Social Landlords, which, I am reliably informed, will be called Oftenant. The Bill is a classic piece of new Labour draftsmanship—it deletes two quangos but then sets up two more.

The aims of the Homes and Communities Agency are laudable enough, but the Government have misjudged our housing challenge by creating a bulging piece of legislation that simply replicates the failed measures of the past. They are introducing a top-down, Whitehall-driven, centrally controlled, big-Government-know-best approach, while local people and their communities are having their powers stripped away.

Mr. Nick Raynsford (Greenwich and Woolwich) (Lab): Has the hon. Gentleman read the Cave report, which recommends the creation of an independent, domain-wide regulator? Does he agree with that recommendation, and if not, why not?

Grant Shapps: As I was explaining to the House, the problem is not the Housing and Regeneration Bill. The problem is that the Bill sets up two quangos, so we will return to having two quangos administering housing issues. To understand the Bill’s shortcomings, one must appreciate the Government’s dismal record on housing. The Government lecture about social justice, but when it comes to housing, they have decreased social mobility. When Labour came to power, the average home cost three and a half times average earnings; now in parts of this country, it is 10 times earnings, and in other parts of the country, it is 20 times local earnings.

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Emily Thornberry (Islington, South and Finsbury) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman tell us how many new homes the Conservative party thinks that we need to build each year?

Grant Shapps: I will come on to that in just a moment, if the hon. Lady is patient. I want to tell her about the Prime Minister’s huge hikes in stamp duty, which have prevented people from buying homes. The lack of affordability means that fewer people can get on to the housing ladder, because the first rung has been cut away.

As house prices have hit unaffordable levels, a truly massive transfer of wealth has taken place in this country from young people to older people, and home ownership is falling for the first time since records began. Most embarrassingly for the Minister, less social housing has been built every single year under this Labour Government than in any year under the Thatcher and Major Governments. Perhaps that is why clauses 67 to 69 sneakily redefine social housing to include affordable housing. At the stroke of a pen, the Government will be able to claim the provision of hundreds of thousands more social housing units without building a thing. What a load of spin! When will the Minister understand that people want homes not headlines?

When the Government have intervened to try to achieve more, they have failed. For example, they introduced the social homebuy scheme in 2006, but they have recently been forced to admit that they have managed to sell just 88 homes. Most tellingly, they have consistently failed to meet their own home-buying targets. When the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) and others discuss targets, it is worth considering that the Government cannot meet their own targets. Under the Thatcher and Major Governments, we averaged 173,000 units a year; this Government have managed 145,000.

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): Just so we know whether we need to remind him, will the hon. Gentleman let us know when he will answer the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry)?

Grant Shapps: When will this Government actually meet a target that they have set? They have tried targets in health care; they have tried targets in education; and they have tried targets in policing. For some reason, those targets have not worked, but they believe that they can set targets on housing and achieve them, although all the evidence—they are supposed to build 200,000 homes a year—demonstrates that they cannot do so. They are not even meeting those targets. People cannot live in targets. They need homes and that is what we would provide. The Government have a dismal record of failure on housing, and the Bill simply repeats exactly the same mistakes. Instead of constructing an overarching new agency with immense powers and a massive budget, ready to steamroller over local democracy, a more enlightened approach is required.

What should the Bill look like? It should be used to foster co-operation between local communities and
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central Government. The Minister needs to understand that not much is achieved by branding anybody with any kind of legitimate concern a nimby. We need to incentivise local communities and to ensure that new housing will benefit them and their families. An existing population should reap the rewards of housing projections based on a larger population. If that were done intelligently, by linking house building to population growth, it might safeguard local hospitals such as the one in my constituency. Infrastructure must be guaranteed and, where possible, lead development.

Sadly, the Bill will achieve none of that. Power will flow from the centre and democratic control will flow away from our communities. The Minister has ensured that the staff of the new agency will be able to enter someone’s home to make a valuation for compulsory purchase with just 28 days’ notice, yet obtaining a home information pack to sell a house can take longer than that. Southern Water recently admitted problems in supplying a search for a HIP within 60 days. Under the Bill, the Minister will have powers to buy someone’s home faster than that person can sell it. Incidentally, I commend her on her embarrassing U-turn last week, when she extended the period for HIPs first-day marketing so that the exemption will last for another six months. Perhaps if she had listened to us earlier she would not be red-faced now. No apology whatsoever has been offered for the turmoil and chaos that all this has caused in the marketplace.

Mr. Andy Slaughter (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman accept that this debate is not about HIPs, his local hospital or Thames Water, but is a serious debate about housing supply? Will he therefore tell us what is his party’s policy on house building?

Grant Shapps: I have to inform the hon. Gentleman that it is a debate about the Housing and Regeneration Bill, so we are discussing its clauses. Let me tell him about them because a power-grab is going on. In clause 14, we discover that the HCA may seize powers to become the local planning authority at the Secretary of State’s whim. Later in the same clause, it may also assume responsibility to charge for hazardous waste. In clause 15, it may take powers to adopt streets. Clause 17 allows it to make traffic regulation orders. There is almost no limit to the remit of that power-grabbing new agency. Buried in schedule 3 there is even a provision for the HCA to seize graveyards and build on them. In clause 19, the HCA is granted powers to enter someone’s home. With just 28 days’ notice, it can survey it, value it, dig for minerals or even compulsorily purchase it. All those powers rest only on consultation with the Secretary of State, and everyone knows how discredited consultation has become in the past 10 years.

Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): I have taken the opportunity to read the amendment, which makes no mention of homelessness—a major priority—or first-time buyers, who are in great difficulty throughout the country. Are we meant to take seriously an Opposition who are unaware of the major concerns related to housing?

Grant Shapps: Given the hon. Gentleman’s interest in homelessness, he will know that the week before last
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I issued my own report on rough-sleeping, which revealed that three times more people are sleeping rough on the streets each night than the 498 whom the Government want us to believe are doing so. We do not want to take lectures about rough-sleeping and homelessness from a Government who have hidden the figures, even though they are being collected by the Department for Communities and Local Government.

Sir Paul Beresford: What the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) failed to note is the key point about local authorities. They are the key to regeneration and the Government have ridden roughshod over them with yet another quango. They are being deprived of money, and they are having their powers taken away. It is another nail in their coffin.

Grant Shapps: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We all know that local communities can deliver affordable homes, but the Minister sees local people as the problem, rather than the solution, so she calls anyone with any legitimate concern on unsuitable development a shocking nimby, unless they happen to sit on the Front Bench as one of her Cabinet colleagues.

Lyn Brown (West Ham) (Lab): I accept that the hon. Gentleman has some difficulty with being called a nimby. In order for us not to call him that any longer, can he tell us how many homes his party intends to build?

Grant Shapps: I am fascinated by the hon. Lady’s intervention. References have been made to my “No Way To 10k” campaign. I thought I would take the precaution of citing an excerpt from the website:

It also refers to supporting 6,000 homes. Not my own words, but those of the Labour parliamentary candidate in my constituency.

It is sad to hear the way in which the Government, and the Minister in particular, criticise councils that are doing the right thing—councils such as Wandsworth, Swindon, King’s Lynn and West Norfolk, Peterborough, Barnet and Hammersmith and Fulham, to name but a few, many of which are exceeding even the Government’s own targets.

Mr. Nick Hurd (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con): What is sad is that my constituents support the need for more affordable housing, but feel increasingly alienated by the perception that their voices are not being heard in the planning process. Does my hon. Friend share my concern that the Minister was entirely silent during her contribution about how the new agency will work with democratically accountable local government, and entirely silent about how it will work with the lord mayor’s office?

Grant Shapps: My hon. Friend is on to something here, because the key point is that we all want more homes. The argument is about how we get there—how we construct those new homes. The problem is that relying on top-down development in areas that lack services and infrastructure, and which are having their
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hospitals axed in many cases, will fail time and time again. On Sunday, Jasper Gerrard in The Observer said of this Bill:

The independence of the new Oftenant regulator is already under threat with the Bill affording powers to the Secretary of State to push through initiatives on any number of policy areas to such an extent that the National Housing Federation has said:

The regulator will be funded by fees, but housing associations have, up until now, been not-for-profit social businesses. According to the National Housing Federation, the changes could mean

The short-sightedness of this legislation is frankly astonishing. When it comes to more housing, the Government simply do not understand that local communities are part of the solution, not the problem.

We welcome the greater flexibility given to local authorities to keep the revenue from social housing to build more, but a previous pledge to reduce red tape for highly performing housing associations is missing from the Bill. What else is missing from it? There is no transparency. The Prime Minister promised a more open Government, but they are still covering up the results of HIPs trials that cost the taxpayer £4 million. We have been promised the MORI results time and again; they have never come out. The Government are still rolling on with HIPs—they have no intention of stopping and they are covering up those results.

Anne Main (St. Albans) (Con): As my hon. Friend is aware, the Minister came before the Select Committee at the end of October and assured us that the Department would evaluate that MORI poll before rolling out any further HIPs, but, lo, a few weeks later, they are doing just that. How can we take what is said to us at face value? The Minister said one thing in Committee, but something completely different happened a few weeks later—the coverage of HIPs has been extended without the evaluation we were promised.

Grant Shapps: My hon. Friend is right: the issue of the day is the Government’s competence—or lack of it. They say that they will publish the results of a trial that cost £4 million of our money, fail to do that, yet still introduce HIPs for properties with one and two bedrooms. That proves that they cannot be trusted. That is why we said that we want the Secretary of State to be asked to come to the House to report on the new agency every year. It will have the power to spend not only £4 million but £3 billion of taxpayers’ money. We call for an amendment that would require the Secretary of State to report to the House each year. I hope that the Minister will consider that.

Say what one likes about the Government, as they lurch from one crisis to the next, at least they have been consistent in one matter: their absolute refusal to learn from mistakes. Given that they look ever more tattered and torn, perhaps it is hardly surprising that they have chosen this time to discuss regeneration policy.
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However, recent reports from the Public Accounts Committee and the National Audit Office make damning reading for the Minister. Perhaps she has averted her eyes; if so, I shall tell her about them.

The controversial pathfinder initiative was designed to intervene in the housing market in the north and the midlands. Despite costing £1.2 billion, the NAO stated earlier this month that

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