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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 5 February 2008

[Mr. David Amess in the Chair]

Housing (Standards)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Ms Diana R. Johnson.]

9.30 am

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): When I was married to my late first husband, Bob Cryer, in 1963, we managed, fortunately, to rent a house from a Mrs. Singleton. I do not want to sound like a Monty Python sketch, but we had an outside toilet and no bathroom, and our only heating was a coal fire. Eventually, we redecorated the house, made it snug, and put a water heater in the kitchen. Mrs. Singleton was so impressed by our efforts that she put our rent up from £1 a week to £1.50. So much for our efforts.

Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): Tory.

Mrs. Cryer: She probably was.

This morning, I want to focus on the problems in the Bradford district as a whole. Social housing is quite a hot topic today, because my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing has been talking about how to manage social housing. Although I do not agree with some of her comments, she apparently said on the “Today” programme that she looked forward to having more and better social housing. That is what I am asking for in my constituency.

In the Bradford Telegraph and Argus last night, my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, North (Mr. Rooney) apparently berated the Bradford Community Housing Trust about the lack of consideration for tenants in his constituency. Over past months, I have had numerous complaints from constituents on various estates in my constituency about the lack of repairs and care by the trust. This morning, I shall focus on one estate—the Woodhouse estate.

At a public meeting in Keighley in September last year, a representative of BCHT, the quasi-private organisation that took control of council housing following the stock transfer in 2003, admitted to tenants that they were living in homes that needed £45,000 of repairs each. I acknowledge the chronic condition of housing, but BCHT continued to receive rent either from its tenants directly or from the public purse via housing benefit. My attempts to seek an explanation as to how BCHT intended to remedy its self-confessed problem were met with comments, published in Inside Housing, that dismissed my calls for accountability on the ground that I was electioneering.

MPs may be accused of that whatever we do. Perhaps the trust would have me do nothing about anything. However, the fact that it has repeatedly failed to answer legitimate questions from an elected representative and the diligent councillors for the ward is reprehensible. We should have been aware of the possibility of this type of problem at the time of stock transfer. Taking publicly
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owned property and transferring it to a quasi-private body without democratic accountability was always likely to be a recipe for disaster. Stock transfer not only brought to an end the influence of elected councillors, but excluded registered social landlords from both the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 and the Freedom of Information Act 2000. I was not aware of that until recently.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Lady on raising an important subject. Does she accept that a decent registered social landlord that is non-profit-making and is run by a board that includes the right number of tenant representatives can deliver decent housing standards and proper maintenance, whereas tenants whose properties remain in council ownership are not necessarily guaranteed that level of decent housing and maintenance?

Mrs. Cryer: My tenants are getting the worst of both worlds, and that will come out later in my comments.

Bob Spink: The hon. Lady is being generous in giving way. I had the same problem as she did, but the other way round. My council refused to give me, as the elected representative of 1,536 tenants, their names and addresses so that I could contact them to represent their interests during the transfer. That was deplorable and the Audit Commission and the local government ombudsman had to become involved in the matter.

Mrs. Cryer: I seemed to have greater influence before stock transfer than now. In a perfect world there may be trusts that manage things better than the one in Bradford.

The same landlord—BCHT—refused to allow one of my constituents to bid for a property. She had served time in prison for a crime for which she had paid the price to society, and wanted to rebuild her life with her two children without again resorting to crime. BCHT believed that the punishment handed down by the courts was insufficient. It was hardly for the trust to comment in that way.

The same landlord attempted to explain the unacceptable condition of housing in my constituency on the basis of a 30-year business plan. My constituents, who are forced to live in such poor conditions, have been denied access to that plan even after an application under the Freedom of Information Act. As their elected representative, I must apparently wait until I am 98 to learn of the solutions. I shall probably be pushing up the daisies by then, or I may have lost interest.

What is worse, as many hon. Members may recall from their constituencies, stock transfer was secured on spurious grounds. First, tenants were promised investment in their homes. Any visit to the Woodhouse estate would demonstrate that that has not materialised. Secondly, any tenant who did not vote in the election to ratify the stock transfer was assumed to have voted for it, which was a deplorable insult to the concept of free and fair elections. Any hon. Member representing an inner-city or urban constituency will be only too aware of how difficult it can be for even the most hard-working and imaginative colleagues to encourage some of our constituents to engage in the electoral process. Such a vote devalues and undermines our process of government and administration and, moreover, makes a mockery of the ethos of being a social landlord.

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From the outset, the signs were there. I argued against stock transfer, and I suppose I lost. That is clearly in the past, but just because stock transfer was built on shaky foundations does not mean that we must now passively allow this flawed, inappropriate and disengaged system to continue. I have asked legitimate questions, but have not been given the courtesy of an intelligent reply. I asked why, when operating and running costs have increased by 11 per cent. since stock transfer and income has increased by only 8 per cent., BCHT was using the funds raised through property sales to cover the annually increasing deficit, which is akin to corporate cannibalism. I was again told that it formed part of a 30-year plan, and my request to see the plan was denied. I also asked when the corporate cannibalism might cease and the proceeds from sales might be reinvested in areas such as Woodhouse, but was again referred to the 30-year plan, and my requests to see it were again denied.

How can I possibly be expected to explain the extremely poor conditions that many of my constituents have to contend with, day in, day out, by a 30-year plan? This economic model is, as yet, wholly untested in the social landlord stock transfer market, which is being used as a smokescreen to avoid accountability to democratically elected representatives such as me and local councillors, and does not deal with the practical issue of substandard housing. One director of the trust has suggested that the answer is simply to refinance the debts. At a time when the Governor of the Bank of England is asking us to tighten our belts and refrain from using our credit cards too much, I am being told—albeit privately—that BCHT should exercise its credit card. Perhaps the question at stake is one not only of accountability, but of the ability to count.

In response to my public and private questioning of BCHT, a consultation with tenants has commenced. Apparently, a meeting, or a so-called options appraisal, will take place tonight on the Woodhouse estate. I look forward to the outcome of that. However, the Housing Corporation has told me that the redevelopment of the Woodhouse estate was never in the infamous 30-year plan, that no application for funding in respect of that redevelopment has ever been made to the Housing Corporation and that, if it were made, it would be rejected on the ground that it did not provide value for money. That is what I was told several weeks ago in a meeting with a representative from the Housing Corporation.

Are we saying, therefore, that the economics of the marketplace should determine whether tenants have the right to decent housing? Treating tenants in such a way is undemocratic and immoral. To make matters worse, my attempts to address the issue were met by opposition from Bradford city hall and by calls for me to keep quiet. I was accused of getting it wrong, and of not understanding the situation or the economic model. I was told that my comments could damage Bradford. My constituency is one fifth of Bradford, and my Woodhouse constituents are a part of that. I think that it would be far more damaging to Bradford if I were to keep quiet.

I have seen for myself the houses on the Woodhouse estate, and I know what condition they are in. They are frequently well decorated and cared for by tenants, but
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the damp is showing through, which is soul destroying for the house-proud people who pay the rents. I challenge any of my critics to meet me at any time on the Woodhouse estate and tell me and my constituents that I and they are wrong and that the 30-year plan is working for them. I find it inexplicable that, after an audit on BCHT, the Housing Corporation found the estate to be satisfactory.

In Walsall, the post-stock transfer organisation faces similar problems. In that case, the Housing Corporation acted. I see no difference between the two scenarios apart from an unwillingness on the part of a regulatory body to carry out its function. If the auditors acting on behalf of the Housing Corporation had really seen the Woodhouse estate, serious questions must be asked regarding their competence. I doubt that they ever saw Woodhouse. Had they done so, they would not have come to their conclusion. I could question what the auditors saw or did not see, but, again, I would be faced with no reply and the stonewall of exemption from the Freedom of Information Act.

It is not in my interests to criticise BCHT without good reason. It is the largest provider of social housing in the Bradford district, and I and my constituents have every interest in having a strong, successful social landlord. However, the reality is that, at a time when demand for housing is increasing, and will continue to do so, stock is significantly decreasing, while costs increase. The fact that BCHT and the Housing Corporation are reluctant to come clean merely adds to the suspicion that something is wrong. If it is the case that the Woodhouse houses are not worth £45,000 of investment but should be replaced, how will BCHT pay for any redevelopment? Had I been told last September that funding is simply not available, I would have immediately referred the matter to the Minister. In the 21st century and after 11 years of our Government, I do not accept that we can idly stand by and allow people to live in the conditions that are found on that estate.

I have been invited to meet the Housing Corporation and BCHT. I am told that they want to address the problems of Woodhouse, but are not yet in a position to share the details of those plans. Even the last-minute attempts to address the matter are shrouded in secrecy. What am I asking? First, I want an open and robust commitment to deal with the problems of the Woodhouse estate in Keighley. I want to see detailed plans and schedules. I want my constituents to be involved in the drawing up of those plans.

Secondly, I want a reappraisal of the meaning of “social landlord”. In the case of BCHT, stock transfer appears to have diminished its ethos. When the interests of the company come before the interests of its tenants, something has gone dramatically wrong. Thirdly, I want to see a reinforcement of the principle of public accountability. Fourthly, there is no point in having a regulatory body if it passively accepts unsatisfactory performance and fails to challenge and find solutions to substandard housing. A regulatory body must have the ability and courage to enforce.

Finally, I want my constituents to be treated with the respect that they deserve rather than being seen as an inconvenience. I want them to be given the right to live in a home that is not harmful to them. Addressing social injustices is what we, and what social landlords,
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should be about. I do not wish to damage BCHT, but I do not believe that adopting the ostrich position in dealing with such difficult issues is beneficial to anyone.

9.46 am

Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) on securing this debate and on putting over her case. It is a crying scandal for a housing association to be so unhelpful to its tenants and to its Member of Parliament. The record of Bradford Community Housing Trust does not seem good to an outsider such as me. It is not right for a social landlord to behave in such a way towards its tenants. The Housing Corporation is currently merging with English Partnerships, which I hope will not be the prelude to a further period of confusion. I hope that such a merger will effectively bring pressure on housing associations to behave more sensibly and in a more accommodating way towards their tenants.

I, too, lost a ballot on a large-scale voluntary transfer against the registered social landlord in Grimsby. In such cases, the deluge of videos and misleading information that descends on tenants has the effect of rigging the ballot. However, that is a loser’s plaint, and I lost. Council housing was taken over by Shoreline housing association, which has been a good landlord and concerned to improve conditions. It has steadily improved the estates by rebuilding and pulling down the worst properties. I am entirely happy with Shoreline. The only problem is that it has not been able to bring into housing all the money that it promised. As a result, houses on some of the estates are boarded up and stick out like sore thumbs. They are clearly a distress to neighbours. Such conditions cannot be improved until the housing association raises the money on the markets, which is proving difficult. It will be a difficult year for housing associations, and for anybody else, to raise money.

The record of housing associations is very patchy. Some are excellent, some are good and some are disastrous. The Government conventionally criticised the councils. There were the same variations in the performance of councils in respect of housing. Some were effective landlords and some were not. The record was better on the whole that that of the housing associations because the tenants had a form of accountability. If they did not like how the council was behaving towards them, they could throw out the councillors. They had that means of redress. There is not the same effective pressure on housing associations. It is misleading to suggest, as the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) did, that housing associations are better at consulting.

The experience is that tenant consultation by housing associations is less effective than it was by the councils. The machinery of consultation is usually set up, but it tends to wither in at least some housing associations. Tenants on the board are bound by the Companies Act 2006 to support the financial interests of the company rather than the interests of the tenants whom they were appointed to represent, so it is not an effective form of representation.

The record is one of sluggishness, particularly in respect of new housing. This country needs a massive housing drive and the Government have undertaken to promote such a drive. That will be very difficult this year, given the state of the housing market. I have
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tabled an early-day motion—it does not yet have a number—suggesting that money should be made available to councils to take over repossessed properties and put them into council housing stock, instead of the building societies and creditors selling off the houses for peanuts, as is usually the case. That would be a useful means of expanding the social housing that this country needs. I hope that the Government will listen to that.

The point is that we need a housing drive and the RSLs—the housing associations—are generally sluggish in their approach to new development. They prefer to build up reserves and balances—to have the money in the bank—and turn themselves into benign housing operators rather than launching a big housing drive in their area. If the councils cannot do that and the housing associations do not do it, it will not be done, so means have to be developed for the Housing Corporation, under its new name, to push housing associations into redevelopment.

The same is true of arm’s length management organisations. Some ALMOs—certainly in Camden, where it is difficult to find land for new building—are being forced to sell off council housing to raise the money to carry out the necessary repairs. I think that that is happening in Sheffield. It is also happening in Birmingham, although it is not an ALMO there. We are in effect reducing the amount of social housing to raise money to repair the remaining social housing, rather than expanding the whole social housing sector. That is a scandal. It is distressing that the so-called Housing and Regeneration Bill—it will not do much for either, as far as I can see—does not tackle that problem right at the start.

This debate is about standards in housing, and the financial pressure on councils is preventing them from improving standards in housing. That pressure and the aspirations of housing associations to build up balances and reserves and to merge with one another to form ever bigger housing associations, covering the whole country and therefore having roots and commitments in no particular area, will prevent the improvements in housing standards that my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley talks about and that we need throughout the country.

The pressures are considerable. Councils are being bullied, bamboozled and pushed into privatising their stock. The Government take from the housing revenue account £1.5 billion every year for redistribution and to pay off the historical debt. That money should go to housing. They take the revenues from right-to-buy sales—which should go to housing—away from the local authorities. Councils have been deprived of money. They are not being provided with any extra money in the generous way in which housing associations are provided with it, through gap funding and the write-off of debt. Councils are not allowed to compete on equal terms in order to push them into privatisation.

That pressure is increased by the Housing and Regeneration Bill, according to which tenants—I do not know how many; 10, 15, 20, 25 or perhaps only two or three—will be allowed to precipitate a large-scale voluntary transfer. One half of the Bill is devoted to pushing councils out of housing and the other half purports to bring them back into housing. That is a crazy combination; we cannot do both. If we are to improve housing standards, that dichotomy must be
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resolved; it is schizophrenic thinking to assume that we can do that. Even where councils are supposed to come back into housing, they are asked to do so on terms that make it impossible for most of them. In fact, the only terms on which they will be able to obtain regional grants is if they go for a large-scale voluntary transfer. It is a vicious circle.

All that means that after 18 Tory years of disinvestment in council housing and 10 Labour years of pressure to privatise, council housing is in a mess in many areas. The Hills report aspires to creating mixed communities, which is what we need and what there used to be. Professor Hills’ research shows that up to 1979, council housing was in genuinely mixed communities, with better-off as well as worse-off people. Since then, the estates have become dumping grounds, because so much of the stock has been sold off. Some of the stock sold off has been repossessed and bought by landlords who just put in anybody, so the whole area goes steadily downhill and there is no longer any sense of community. In that situation, housing standards are declining. We want social housing and council housing to be in a genuine community in which people can grow up together, live together and aspire to move into ownership or to other areas. It has to be a base from which people can build, but it has not become that.

It is distressing to see the views of the new Minister for Housing in today’s edition of The Guardian—exhibit A, which I cannot produce in court, but which I hold up in case anybody has long sight and can read it from a distance. I do not know what happens to new Ministers. It has not happened on the same scale to the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright), but there is a kind of miasma in the basement of the Department for Communities and Local Government that seeps up and fills the minds of new Ministers, who begin to take up the kind of attitudes that one associates with the Smith institute. The attitude is basically that social housing and council housing are a kind of transit camp into which people will be moved on the basis of a means test and out of which they will be moved if they become better off. It is not that—it is housing for people; it is housing for communities. Until we get back to that basic aspiration, we shall have an unsatisfactory situation in which there are low standards in housing.

According to the article, the new Minister for Housing refers to

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