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6.29 pm

John Battle (Leeds, West) (Lab): I, too, warmly welcome the Housing and Regeneration Bill. I liked the emphasising of the word “regeneration” by the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock). The Government now acknowledge in public policy the desperate need for affordable, decent homes for families to rent. We had moved away from that for far too long.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mr. Purchase) said that there is a “crisis”, but I believe it to be a crisis of hidden family homelessness in Britain. The Bill acknowledges that, and puts forward practical proposals and new budgeting structures to start to tackle it. I profoundly believe that 80 per cent. home ownership, which could be better expressed as mortgage indebtedness or as mortgage dependency, is socially and economically unsustainable. That is far too high a level for any society, so I welcome what I suspect might be a helpful rebalancing in the Bill.

My regular advice surgeries in my inner-city constituency, like those of my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn), are overwhelmed by people suffering what could be described as housing stress. Such people include: young couples who are desperate to get a home of their own and are sleeping on sofas with families; youngsters with children who are sleeping in the front room with their grandparents; and people who are overcrowded in what are euphemistically called “box rooms”, which fall well below the Parker Morris space standards. Such people perhaps have two cots, but they are trying to cope. People in flats with children—that was against the points system—will have to wait years for their kids to grow up before they change circumstances, and their only dream is to get downstairs to be in a home with a garden. May we start from the premise that there is a profound shortage of homes to rent, because the Bill does just that?

The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), a former Housing Minister, suggested that people might be able to buy their way out, but I do not think that that is possible any more.
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The reason for that is the fact that the gap between the floor and the first step in the housing ladder is well beyond their financial means. The average income in my constituency is £16,000 a year. The mortgage companies in the city assume that the average income in Leeds as a whole, which is doing rather well, is £23,000. My constituents are regarded as being on £23,000 when they are on £16,000, and they have no chance of breaking into the mortgage market. They cannot even afford to buy a modest back-to-back house, because such houses sell at £80,000. That is the scale of the problem.

It is not true that Leeds is not building houses. Some 26,000 private units have been built there since 1997. They are mostly expensive, single-person, single-unit flats and apartments to buy in the city centre, and support the booming finance and office sectors. We are talking about studio flats for professionals, but the problem is that they are well beyond the means of people in my neighbourhood—they will never be able to buy them. What is more, all the city council evidence shows that 70 per cent. of the new build stock has two bedrooms or fewer, but 70 per cent. of the city’s housing demand is for houses with two, three or four bedrooms or more. There is a total mismatch between the needs of the people and what is being provided.

Anne Main: I share the right hon. Gentleman’s concerns about the lack of family housing provided in many communities. Does he have any concern, as I do, that the Government’s targets of densities have driven this situation and led to an inflexibility whereby developers say, “I’ll give X units because I have to cram on so many”? The way forward would be if local authorities were more able to decide what sort of homes they want. This should not be density-driven.

John Battle: I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s intervention, because she reminds me that the Conservative Government introduced what I believe was called the development corporation in my city centre. It introduced those density levels, which resulted in the flats that were built.

I remember the wife of a footballer who got a job in the city when Leeds United was doing rather better coming to my advice surgery to tell me that she had moved into a flat that had been built for Porsches and not for prams. What could the families there do—there were no doctors’ facilities or shops? The flats were costing more than £200,000 to buy, but for the needs of the rich even they were inappropriate.

I simply suggest that there is an imbalance and mismatch between the type of housing that has been built and what is needed. We ought not to get the balance wrong again. There are plans to provide 3 million extra houses, but we must ensure that we do not simply build new units. We must build the right sized homes to meet the need. If we neglect that issue, we will make no progress.

I welcome the recognition that the first rung on the housing ownership ladder is now so far out of many young families’ reach that the need to build affordable homes to rent should be acknowledged universally as a priority. We have made some progress. I also welcome the proposal to set up the new Homes and Communities Agency, and in particular the merger with English
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Partnerships. I say that because it brings together the land problem and the provision of buildings problem. When the former Deputy Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott), promised that he could build houses for £60,000 for first-time buyers the problem was that the value of the land was never added into that cost. Once that was done, the house cost much more than £60,000 and was again beyond those people’s reach. So bringing together the land and development issues will be helpful. However, if we put the whole package together from the outset, it is also essential, as I believe the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South mentioned, that regeneration remains an essential part of the whole process.

Elements of the Bill on regeneration cannot be overemphasised, particularly in respect of inner-city neighbourhoods, where derelict and semi-derelict brownfield land could be brought into use for small-scale housing development now. Some of the housing associations have done an excellent job with what we called “pepper-potting” or “infill sites” to show that neighbourhoods can be built and to enable people who want to live near their parents or grandparents to live within communities again. There is a focus on communities rather than on simply suggesting that development be large-scale and further away.

Perhaps English Partnerships could intensify its work with local councils to begin to identify inner-city brownfield sites. I live in the inner city, and I am not asking for my neighbourhood to be concreted over, as someone suggested the other day. Plenty of space is available to use; derelict sites could be brought into use while leaving us new green spaces and play areas to redevelop neighbourhoods in the city. It is ludicrous that a young woman with a pram and two kids has to walk nearly a mile and a half up a hill to go to care for her elderly parents but the points system does not allow her to move into a house four doors down, which would enable her to do her care work on a daily basis. We should start to ask whether the housing development that we are putting together serves the needs of local communities and to put that focus back in. We can do that while insisting that we do much more to increase the supply and extend the number of properties that have been built.

I have heard no one in this debate suggest that we go back to the tower blocks of the 1960s, the “system build” houses, and the high density developments and the large estates beyond the ring roads that were generally soulless and did not have community facilities. Much more can be done with careful analysis. We can use brownfield, inner-city sites without creating a panic about building on, and encroaching on, the green belt. There is no reason why the only options are either new houses on green belt or no new houses. Much more can be done to redevelop inner-city neighbourhoods such as mine.

Rebuilding local communities must be sustainable. We should take much more account of one element in the Bill—the idea of the sustainability code. One of my Labour colleagues suggested that it be made mandatory, because simply putting the units up and not building in the future environmental and energy efficiency will be short-sighted in the extreme. We will end up where we have ended up every time that we have gone for a building push—we put up houses that we
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then knock down within 50 years. How often has that happened? We have put the houses up, found a fault, knocked them down again and wasted resources. Will we think a bit more long-term this time and build in that environmental sustainability? I am not only talking about the sustainability of the building. Will we begin to think more holistically about the sustainability of local communities?

I have always believed that Leeds is a city of urban villages. People can say which side of the street belongs to which neighbourhood and which street divides the neighbourhood. People on one side of a street come from Bramley whereas people on the other side of it come from Armley. Those clusters still exist even with a high turnover of 30 per cent. of the people moving through the neighbourhoods every three years. It is a high turnover area, but still has strong local identities, and we should focus on those much more. We should get English Partnerships to work with local authorities to identify where we could start the pepper-pot, infill building.

We should restructure housing finance. The sale of council houses was a massive discount sale, and the best third of the stock went—that is why there is such a drastic shortage. When I was a councillor, an old councillor dredged up some comments made when the first council housing in the country was built in my city in the 1930s. A Conservative councillor, who opposed council housing on principle, said, “Make the people buy, and then we will force them to vote Conservative directly.” I hope that that old argument is by the way now, and that we are not playing politics with whether a home is to rent or to buy.

I suggest that the balance between renting and buying is out of sync and unsustainable economically, socially and in terms of providing neighbourhoods for the future. I hope that we can have all-party support, for once, for the proposition that building affordable, decent homes to rent is the right approach. At least the Bill sets a bit of a trail in the right direction.

6.41 pm

Anne Main (St. Albans) (Con): It is a delight to follow the right hon. Member for Leeds, West (John Battle). He mentioned density, and it was this Government who insisted on a high density of 30 to 50 to the hectare under PPG3 and often overturn my authority when it wishes to build at a lower density. I look forward to the Government giving more control back to local authorities to build the houses that they want.

The Homes and Communities Agency will be given a broad set of powers, including the catch-all provision that it

It may also

various sections—

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The devil will be in the detail, and with 121 pages of detail the Committee will have to consider all aspects of the Bill carefully.

As a matter of principle, I fully support the rights of local communities to decide how they take shape and grow. Too often, people in my constituency have felt dictated to on housing totals and density by the Government, so are understandably irritated when planning decisions made locally are controversially overturned by the Secretary of State. In Hertfordshire, we face the threat of continually escalating housing totals that we feel are unsustainable and lack supporting infrastructure. Indeed, infrastructure will be key to the Bill. We do not know the eventual housing total for Hertfordshire and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps) said, we have some concerns about density and sustainability.

Richard Younger-Ross: The hon. Lady talks of high density as if it is a bad thing. There is nothing wrong with high density schemes provided that they are properly designed, the rooms are big enough and the facilities are provided. The advantage of high density schemes is that less land is used and, therefore, there is less incursion on to greenfield sites.

Anne Main: I agree that high density schemes can be well designed. Indeed, some of our wonderful Georgian and Victorian terraces are high density. The problem is that planning for an estate can be decided on its overall density, so it has large executive homes at one end and shoeboxes at the other. A blanket approach to density can skew a development and be very unfortunate for those people who are put into the small amount of housing that is designated as affordable.

The role of the local planning authority, along with the democratically elected councillors who make up the local planning committees, could be marginalised or made irrelevant by certain aspects of the Bill. If the HCA becomes a local planning authority as outlined in clause 14(2)(b), the role of the true local authority will be neutered. I cannot imagine that my constituents would be happy with the thought that the HCA were in control, rather than democratically elected councillors.

Clause 8 provides that the HCA may acquire, manage, reclaim, repair, improve and dispose of housing. My concern is that that is a duplication of responsibilities under the empty dwelling management orders for local authorities. If the HCA is to go ahead, EDMOs should be part of its responsibilities, to avoid duplication. I would like to hear the Minister’s view on that point.

Clause 9 includes worrying provisions about the HCA’s power to acquire land compulsorily, including allotments, commons, village greens, open spaces and public gardens. I checked with the lawyers on the Bill Committee the wording of subsection (5), which states:

The information I received today suggests that the HCA will be able to acquire compulsorily land such as a common or village green and designate a piece of land elsewhere with similar rights. How will the
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community that has the rights over the original village green or common have any say over the land that is given in exchange? Such pieces of land are often at the heart of our most beautiful villages and can be integral to village life and community activities. If we truly value communities, it must be a worrying notion that a piece of land used for community amenity can be swapped for a piece of land elsewhere.

That provision, and the replacement of the local planning authority, will mean that local people can be dictated to. Commons, such as the one in Colney Heath, are a valuable environmental resource, contain sensitive habitats and often define villages. If the HCA can compulsorily purchase them for development, what say would local people have if they lost commoners rights? Common land status is not only defined by greenery: some of our historic market towns contain tranches of common land, where commoners’ land rights exist over hard landscape. When I was a councillor, I served on an old town regeneration scheme and we discovered that odd tracts of land in the village bore common land rights. Over the years, it had evolved from hard-standing for animals and carts into small car parks or marketplaces. If such common land is to be developed, we need to ensure that common land rights are not extinguished, but they would be very hard to duplicate elsewhere.

I am sure that the Minister will be as well versed as she needs to be on the subject of fuel allotments, which could also be exchanged or moved elsewhere under the Bill. I was bemused as to what a fuel allotment was until I read “A History of Clewer” today—if the Minister has not done so, I recommend it. A fuel allotment, which can be exchanged, sold or used for development, was established under an Act of George III in 1813 for vesting parts of Windsor forest and gave people foresters rights, including the right to collect fuel. I fail to see how a fuel allotment area—possibly an old piece of land with historic rights over it—could easily be replaced by another piece of land elsewhere. I look forward to examining in Committee how fuel allotments will be dealt with. Those details call for extremely close scrutiny.

Similarly, I am concerned that clauses 16, 17 and 21 of the Bill may neuter the role of the local highways authority. They allow private roads to be adopted, made into public highways or, sometimes, opened up. That could have far-reaching implications for residents who enjoy a private, semi-rural highway that is not laid to tarmac or, at the other end of the spectrum, those who live in the traffic-averse, gated environments that can be found on some of the newer estates. I understand that residents can appeal against compulsory adoption, but at what cost and on what planning grounds? Surely, any alteration to our highways would need new planning guidance for highways.

I also want to touch on the certificates of energy sustainability, and those who assess them. We are asked to accept that the new inspection regime will have 890 assessors in place by 2008, and I presume that we are meant to feel comfortable that they will be fully trained and in place by the right date. However, given the Government’s handling of the roll-out of home information packs, and especially their failure to bring forward enough suitably qualified energy assessors, I
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am sure that other hon. Members will share my scepticism that the plan will fall into place in a timely manner.

For example, in March 2006 we were assured that between 5,000 and 7,400 full-time home inspectors would be required yet, by May 2007, the Secretary of State was compelled to announce to the House that the actual figure was far lower. According to a recent BBC report, a lack of work and inflated expectations of earning power had left qualified assessors deeply disappointed with their role. Will the new assessors in training for the energy certification job be able to look forward to far more security?

We need honesty and transparency in the energy certification process, as otherwise we risk a rerun of the HIPs debacle. I am concerned that there will be a degree of duplication and overlap with the energy assessors already in training. That needs to be looked at carefully, as we do not want the Bill to leave us with yet more duplication.

We have heard a great deal today about sustainable communities, homes and towns. Although a house must be eco-friendly when it is built, we must also ensure that similar consideration is given to the resources used to build it and to the labour force that put it together, as well as to other aspects of construction. The people who buy the homes will want to know whether servicing them will require lots of workmen migrating in and out. In my constituency, for example, there is widespread concern about a contemplated rail freight interchange. That would not be sustainable, as all the labour force required to service it would have to be brought in.

There are many problems with the Bill that will have to be ironed out in Committee. My constituents are lucky enough to have precious green spaces in their communities, but their biggest worry—which I share—is that the Government will shoehorn even more development into them. I hope that the Minister will be able to give me some comfort about that; if not, I hope that the matter, which many people regard as crucial, is explored fully in Committee.

6.53 pm

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab): This is a wide-ranging and complex Bill and I welcome it. I shall address my remarks specifically to its provisions in respect of Gypsies and Travellers. They make up only a small part of the Bill, but they are very important to a lot of people.

I am delighted that, in clause 272, the Government address the issue of security of tenure on sites for Gypsies and Travellers run by local authorities, and I welcome the fact that the clause gives residents of such sites the security of tenure enjoyed by residents of other mobile home sites. The proposals are very fair, and I welcome the Minister’s commitment. These are important matters for Gypsies and Travellers, many of whom have come to the House to meet members of the all-party group on Gypsy-Traveller law reform, which I chair. They have told us about how the insecurity of the present arrangements has affected their lives, families and children. It is therefore very good that the Government are going ahead with the proposals in the Bill.

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