The hon. Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes) made two key points. He took on the central argument about why houses were not being built, and explained that it was a problem of the centre trying to take more and more powers and of no incentives for local authorities to build houses. He is right. He also noted that the attempt in the Bill to give councils the chance
to build more houses was a chimera, because the money will not be made available. The hon. Gentleman spoiled it all at the end. Having described his objection to Government policy, he explained why he would not support our amendment, which was a shame.
Let us get to the heart of the argument. We intend to work through the Committee and hope that we can produce a better Bill by the end of it. At the end of that process we will judge how we will vote on Third Reading. At this stage, as our reasoned amendment makes clear, we believe that the evidence of delivery under the Governments fixation with control and top-down, unaccountable regional bodies is not good enough. It does not deliver the housing that all our constituents want, and virtually every Member seems to agree with that. The new merged agency will not deliver on its own, and the new social regulator will not deliver on its own. Those bodies will be assisted by the acquisition of new powers. That will give them greater powers at the expense of local decision making by democratic bodies, which is an answer that so many hon. Members have missed or simply swept aside.
The hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) was angry and testy, but she made some good points. She mentioned the targets in her area and said that she does not think that they can be met. In all fairness, if she does not think that they can be met, what is the point? She also said that she has read the Bill carefully and wants to make sure that it includes a duty for the new agency to consult on planning, because she fears that it might be too aggressive in its controls.
My right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) made an excellent speech with the benefit of his long experience. He discussed amending the Bill to introduce a national mobility scheme, which makes a great deal of sense. He also discussed the danger of the new agency acquiring too many powers, in which he was not alone. In a number of interventions on his colleagues, the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) drew attention to what he sees as the agency taking more powers away from councils, and he is right about that.
The Local Government Chronicle headline for 22 November stated Planning grab fears. Housing quango may silence councils on new towns. That headline could have been written by my hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfieldthat is his sort of language. The editorial stated:
Clearly, the governments housing targets are too precious to leave solely to local government. Housing Minister Iain Wright
is explicit on our front page this week, when he says that the agency is there to challenge authorities that drag their heels over housing quotas. While this is an attempt to mitigate some of the NIMBYism that blights housing supply, it also takes some of the local out of local government. One of the crucial components of councils ability to place-shape is planning, and if they can be steamrollered over where housing and eco-towns are located, their role as local community leaders is significantly undermined.
We need urgent clarifications on just how these planning powers will be used, or else we could find the Bill takes us two steps forward, one big leap back.
enabling legislation, rather than dictating legislation?
Alistair Burt: I accept entirely what the Minister has said. It would be helpful to clarify that point in Committee, because there is a fear that when this Government enable, it is terribly tempting to use the powers that they acquire through their quangos or the centre. The Local Government Chronicle is not alone in expressing concern about how those powers will be used. We would certainly appreciate a clarification, and several cities have the same concerns. The right hon. Member for Oldham, West and Royton (Mr. Meacher) was concerned about the acquisition of powers, too, and the last time that I looked he was not a Tory.
The hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) graphically described the social side of poor housing. He and I have known each other for a long time, and his stance on the issues and his commitment to people has never varied in my experiencehe spoke movingly. He also opened up a discussion about the place of owner-occupation in our society and whether we have reached an absolute limit. The right hon. Member for Leeds, West (John Battle) and the hon. Members for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) and for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) joined in that discussion, which concerned a difficult question in our society.
People aspire to home ownership, which we want to encourage because it is associated with many good things. I did not go all the way with the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mr. Purchase), who discussed choice as a zero-sum gameI do not think that it holds that my choice of a house means that somebody is somehow denied one. At some stage our society must confront the question of where renting fits into it. On the continent it is much more acceptable to rent for a long period in any social circumstance.
Alistair Burt: I understand the hon. Ladys interpretation of the word, but that is not what I meant. People feel that they want to own their own home because of what it means in terms of the accumulation of wealth, pension security and so on. If that is an aspiration, that is fine.
Alistair Burt: No, because of the shortage of time. I am opening up the debate about the relative places of renting and owner-occupation in our society. I would have thought that Labour Members would find that helpful; that was the reason for doing it.
My hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Anne Main) correctly expressed her concern about the powers of the new agency and raised, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke, the issue of infrastructure. We heard little from Labour Members about the need to get the infrastructure in place before the building occurs. Many of them complained about the numbers of houses not built, as do the Government, without thinking through why there is such resistance in some local communities to the housing numbers that are set. That is because communities do not feel that they have the resources to service the houses that they have been asked to take. The Government place no emphasis on dealing with that infrastructure problem or offering incentives; that is why the great monolith rolls on.
Recent reports on how the Government have handled their policy all say the same: they are not doing very well. I could quote extensively from the two recent reports on pathfinders and the Thames Gateway, but to put it in a nutshell they are, as the Minister for Housing knows very well, highly critical [ Interruption. ] Oh, all right, they are not highly critical. Let me kick off with the first conclusion of the Public Accounts Committee on the Thames Gateway:
The Departments management of the programme has been weak, and has not demonstrably added value to the programme.
there is no guarantee that intervening in the housing market in this way will address the causes rather than the symptoms of the problems experienced in these neighbourhoods
With the best interpretation in the world, those reports are pretty critical. They point to the Governments approach, not necessarily their intention or desires. The hon. Member for Luton, South spoke of good intent, and she is right, but the delivery has not been as good as it should be. As the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington said, that has been a disappointment and a let-down to all the people who thought that 10 years of a Labour Government might deliver a bit more than good intent.
Let me raise two final points. First, several outside organisations are expressing concern about design and quality. In the great desire to build more houses, which we want to do, there is a danger that design will be squeezed out and we will not get the quality that we need. That would be a tragedy. Several hon. Members spoke about density. We can have high density and still
have good-quality accommodation. Terry Farrell is very good on this subject, and the injunctions of the Commission for Architecture and the Built EnvironmentI think that something is coming out tomorrowshould be carefully listened to.
Secondly, I wish the new agency wellI hope that it gets everything right during its mergerbut it must not concentrate solely on house building at the expense of regeneration. I put in a personal plea: it must recognise that there are other forms of regeneration besides the physical, such as the human and spiritual. Some of my colleagues spoke about the sheer misery of people trapped in poverty and deprivation. They need more than just a nicely built environment. They need time devoted to dealing with addictions, and to dealing with relationship breakdown, the aspirations of their children, and children who are carers. That is part of regeneration, and I hope that we will not miss that out.
At the end of the debate, we are left with what we share, and with what divides the House. As the party that under Michael Heseltine began the modern regeneration of our cities and urban areasa start built on by this Government, and when we look at the city centres of Manchester and Birmingham, we can see thatwe share a deep concern for the areas of deprivation in our society. They are places of unfulfilled lives and poor aspiration, which are blighted too often by physical environments that hinder those seeking a better life rather than help them. We share a sense that the work to relieve such problems will not be quick, or cheap, but we know that we cannot leave such areas alone, or neglect the physical and human problems that lie within them.
We share the view that more houses need be built, but we differ on how to go about that. We cited example after example of how money could be used better; of unnecessary waste; of targets cited and not metthe next one is always coming along, and of course it will be met, even though there has been no change in the processof what is too often a top-down approach with a lack of communication with those affected; of a regionalist approach when a local one would be better; and of a bureaucratic and unaccountable style when a democratic answer is the right one. We ask why the Government persist with a one-club approachthe long ball down the middle to the inevitable end. Regeneration and housing in this country deserve better. The people affected in poor areas deserve better. The Bill could have been so much better, but the chance has been missed. Above all, the country deserves the future, rather than the past, and I shall ask the House to support our amendment, which offers just that.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Iain Wright): I thank the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) for the kind words at the beginning of his speech. He is a decent and honourable man, fine in his moderate termsin contrast with the rest of his Front Bench team.
The Housing and Regeneration Bill is wide ranging and ambitious, yet detailed and technical, and todays debate has reflected that. It is a huge Bill of 280 clauses
and 10 schedules, and right hon. and hon. Members have stepped up to the plate today to express their viewsoften very different views. We have had 25 speeches and a great number of interventions. I would like to thank my 16 right hon. and hon. Friends for standing up firmly for their constituencies and their principles. I was going to pay tribute to hon. Members from all parties, but with the greatest respect to the three Conservative Back Benchers who actually bothered to make a speech, I have to say that the length and quality of this fine debate has been largely down to Labour Members.
To be frank, I was expecting a bit of a cut-and-thrust debate. I was expecting people to say, I dont think we need houses in my back yard. We dont have the infrastructure. But Conservative Members did not even bother turning up to the game. For most of the afternoon, there was no one on the Tory Back Benches at all, and I hope that their constituents recognise that.
I turn to the opening remarks by the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps). I found his contribution quite astonishing, but not in a positive way. He criticised the creation of an independent, stand-alone regulator for social housing tenants. He hinted that he and his party would actually abolish Oftenant. I am sure that the millions of people in social housing who deserve higher standards in core housing services would be surprised at that. Oftenant will be a modern, effective and responsive regulator, cutting red tape for good landlords whose tenants are satisfied, but intervening and securing improvements elsewhereeven bringing about changes in managementwith new powers to issue enforcement notices and penalties. My hon. Friends, especially my hon. Friends the Members for Luton, South (Margaret Moran), for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne), for West Ham (Lyn Brown), for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey), for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) and for Islington, South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford), recognised all that, but the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield did not even know that the sector is already regulated by the Housing Corporation. That shows the extent of his concern for the services provided for tenants.
I thank my hon. Friends, especially my hon. Friends the Members for Islington, South and Finsbury and for West Ham, for raising the point about the new regulator providing redress for constituents who have had problems with their RSL. Our proposals respond directly to tenants concerns that they are not listened to about the issues that matter to thema good basic housing service and having their complaints acted upon. Getting that right is a big challenge for housing providers. We intend the regulator to focus on working with providers to achieve a good management service and be responsive to tenants. When complaints are supported by clear evidence and highlight wide systemic failures by the landlords, affecting many tenants, it is for the regulator to investigate.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mr. Purchase), in a passionate speech, cited not clause 4, but clause 173, on the provision of social housing. He mentioned his fear that it was the start of means-testing. My right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West and Royton (Mr. Meacher)
and my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) also mentioned means-testing. Let me clarify the matter: the Bill does not introduce a means test. It does not mean that social homes whose tenants can afford the mark-up will cease to be social homes. Anything that is social housing now will remain social housing, even if it does not meet the definition. The Bill does not change protections in contracts for existing tenants or change policy for new ones.
Paul Holmes: I thank the Under-Secretary for that attempt to clarify the issue, but will he go a little further? Will he guarantee that, under clause 173, no tenants whose living circumstances or wages improve will be deemed not to be social tenants and no longer have an assured tenancy? Will he guarantee that they will not be removed from that council or RSL property?
Mr. Wright: That is absolutely correct, but I want to tackle the wider point about means-testing and rationing allocation. We simply need more homes. Allocation and rationing are happening now because we do not have enough homes. For a generation, since the early 1970s, the supply of housing, especially social housing, in this country has not kept pace with demanda point that my right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West and Royton and my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish made. Now we have made progress. The annual rate of new housing supply has increased by 40 per cent. since 2001 and is now at its highest for more than 20 years, reaching approximately 185,000 affordable homes in 2005-06. However, I stress again that we need to do more; we need more homes.
My hon. Friends the Members for Islington, North, for Islington, South and Finsbury, for Denton and Reddish, for Luton, South, for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Slaughter) and for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) brought home to the House their experiences in their advice surgeries. They made important and emotional contributions to the debate. They confirmed what I experience in my constituency surgery: the biggest issue that affects hon. Memberscertainly Labour Membersis the provision of affordable and social housing and the need to tackle overcrowding. They re-emphasised the key point that we need more homes. We have already said that the overcrowding standards are out of date and need to be changed.
However, it is not enough simply to change the definition. We need to build more and larger homes and we are already investing £35 million in pilots in London to help those who want to move out of large properties into smaller ones to help relieve overcrowding. Further work is needed and I hope that we can explore that in Committee.