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Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I wonder whether you might be able to use your good offices to persuade the Department for Communities and Local Government to release from the Vote Office the Thames Gateway annual report, which was supposed to be published in June. I am told by the Vote Office staff that it is in the cellars here, but they have not been given the say-so by the Department to release it. It is material to this legislation: section 45 refers to the interface of the Homes And Communities Agency with the urban development corporations. It really is sloppy that the report has not been made available in the Vote Office this afternoon. The Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright), looks a bit bewildered; I hope he will use his good offices to get the civil servants to release it pretty damned quick.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would not expect me to be able to explain what is happening and why, but his remarks will have been noted. Perhaps if it is in the cellar, it is maturing, like good wine, and we shall see it before too long.

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Orders of the Day

Housing and Regeneration Bill

Lords amendments considered.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): I draw the House’s attention to the fact that privilege is involved in Lords amendments Nos. 27, 28, 31, 203, 228, 231, 238, 241, 245 to 250 and 267. If the House agrees to any of these Lords amendments, I shall ensure that the appropriate entry is made in the Journal.

Clause 2


Lords amendment : No. 1.

6.23 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Iain Wright): I beg to move, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: With this it will be convenient to discuss Lords amendments Nos. 2 to 64, 201, 202, 205, 207, 208, 212, 224 to 244, 264 to 267, 269 to 272, 278, 281, 283 to 287, 289, 291 to 293, 296 to 298, 300 to 303, 305, 308 and 311.

Mr. Wright: This group of amendments relates to part 1 of the Bill, which is concerned with the creation of the Homes and Communities Agency. We had some excellent debates in Committee on the role of the agency, its powers and its relations with other bodies. That debate was continued, with knowledge and expertise, in the other place, so I believe that the Bill has been much improved during its passage through Parliament. The world has changed in economic terms in the six months since we debated the Bill in Committee, but I would like the Bill, and the Homes and Communities Agency, to be as future-proof as possible, and the amendments help to establish that.

Lords amendment No. 1 adds the term “good design” to clause 2, which concerns the objects of the Homes and Communities Agency. That is a welcome step and puts good design at the heart of what the agency will seek to achieve, and into the context of sustainable development. There was a strong debate in Grand Committee in the other place about the importance of good design. Design costs are a relatively small proportion of overall build costs; however, the costs of poor design are high. It is becoming ever more apparent that good design attracts people, investment and activity to places. Conversely, poor design and poor quality act as a real barrier to prosperity and sustainability. Planning policy statement 1 states:

The importance of good design, therefore, is already enshrined in national planning guidance. However, I am pleased that design is now in the objects of the agency, acknowledging its importance and allowing the considerable powers and resources of the agency to be used for the purposes of good design.

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The very first amendment that we discussed in the Public Bill Committee was one tabled by the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), whom I am delighted to see in his place, and it was about improving the accessibility of new housing, particularly for the disabled or for the increasingly older population. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the future demographics of this country. He stated that over the next 20 years, the number of disabled and older people will increase by roughly two thirds. About 329,000 disabled people are living in housing that is not suited to their requirements. I remember vividly what the right hon. Gentleman said in Committee. He may not have thought so, but it had a huge impact on my thinking, and I am keen to help. That is why I—as honorary patron of the Access Association for the north-east—and I hope the right hon. Gentleman as well, welcome Lords amendment No. 2, which will clarify that the term “good design” includes design

A key theme of the deliberations on part 1 of the Bill throughout its passage has been the relationship between the agency and its key partners, particularly those in local government. Critics of the Bill and the agency have often stated that the HCA will be a large, centrally driven quango, imposing top-down targets and riding roughshod over the needs and wishes of local communities. That is precisely not what we wish to achieve through the agency. It was never our intention. We have always maintained that a key test of the agency’s success will be the manner in which it partners local authorities in the delivery of new housing and the regeneration of communities throughout England.

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): I am grateful to the Under-Secretary for his comments. Let us take a hypothetical situation in which the Government take account of the housing downturn, and the fact that the original target of 3 million homes is now clearly inappropriate. If the HCA were to stick to that target, and the Minister for Housing implied that the Government might want it to, would local authorities have the right to challenge that number?

Mr. Wright: I am not entirely certain what the hon. Gentleman is getting at. What is very clear, as I said in my opening remarks, is that economic circumstances throughout the world have changed in the six months since we last looked at this legislation, but that the fundamentals of the housing market in this country have remained the same. There has been a huge imbalance between demand for and supply of housing for something like a generation. One of the things discussed in Committee was the ability of the agency, using skills and expertise at the disposal of local authorities, to allow councils to step up to the plate to provide skills and capacity to ensure that the strategic housing market assessment that local authorities undertake allows them to build the houses that their area requires.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): I should like to press the point made my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood). Although I agree with what the Under-Secretary says about what we want local authorities to be able to do, the question is one of authority. I ask him the question again: can local authorities
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effectively challenge edicts from the HCA under the revised form that the Bill will take once we have passed these amendments?

Mr. Wright: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for clarifying that point. In this group of amendments, we are keen not to have, in his words, an “edict”. We are trying to promote as far as possible, as we have done throughout the Bill’s passage, positive partnership relations between the local authority in question and the agency.

On that point, our intention with regards to the partnership working between the agency and local authorities was made clear with the launch of the new Local Government Association protocol at its conference a couple of weeks ago. I hope that it will reassure the hon. Gentleman to learn that it states:

I suggest that several significant amendments in the other place have reinforced the intention further.

6.30 pm

Lords amendment No. 51 would require the agency to consult

and to publish a statement on how it proposes to comply with that requirement.

Clauses 13 and 14 form an important part of the relationship between central Government, the agency and local authorities and its operation in practice. They cover the Secretary of State’s power to make designation orders and the power of the HCA to act as the local planning authority.

Legitimate concerns were raised in Committee and in the other place about the wide-ranging powers in part 1, especially whether the agency would “railroad development through”—I use the phrase of the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps) in Committee, although I do not agree with it. I hope that hon. Members know that railroading was never the Government’s intention. We have always stated that local authorities are best placed to know their areas’ needs. I hope that that directly addresses the point that the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) made.

Martin Horwood: The Under-Secretary comes out with fine phrases, but the reality on the ground is different. Local authorities find themselves unable to challenge housing allocations, which regional assemblies and regional spatial strategies hand down. It seems likely that the HCA will be capable of issuing the same sort of downward edict, to use the phrase of my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik).

Mr. Wright: I disagree. As I said, there will be a close, strong partnership and a positive relationship between the agency and local authorities to provide skills, expertise and capacity to ensure that local authorities can ascertain the strategic housing needs in their area. We are not considering something only for London and south-east—
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every region in the country has huge need of housing, especially affordable housing. The agency will play a key role in working closely with a local authority in an area, regardless of where it is. It will ask what the local authority needs, including skills and expertise, to step up to the plate, and what funding and other things it requires. We had an interesting debate in Committee about infrastructure, and what would be needed to facilitate housing development in a specific area.

We have always stated that local authorities are best placed to know the needs of their areas. However, in some—albeit rare—circumstances, the development and regeneration challenges that some local authorities face may mean that they require additional assistance and support to achieve the objectives. To ensure that that is done properly, it is right and proper that a full set of powers is at the Secretary of State's disposal.

I said to hon. Members that considerable safeguards were already in place for those powers. However, the Government are keen to address concerns that were expressed in the House and in the other place. So as I said in Committee, each area will be set out in a designation order made by the Secretary of State and, in deciding to exercise that power, she will need to be satisfied that designating an area and conferring local planning authority powers on the agency is justified and reasonable. However, Lords amendment No. 8 makes it clear that the Secretary of State, in determining whether it is appropriate to exercise those powers, also needs to be satisfied that making the order is likely to improve the effectiveness with which local planning authority functions will be discharged. That is an important additional test. I hope that the House is reassured that it is explicit in the Bill that the Secretary of State needs to demonstrate clearly that exercising the powers would provide additional capacity and bring added benefit to an area.

We have also addressed concerns about the consultation process in providing a designation order, and the role of the local authority in that order. Under the clauses as originally drafted and debated in Committee, the Secretary of State was required to consult all local authorities that had an interest in the area that it was proposed to designate. In addition, several specific new controls have been established. They should reassure the House about the exercise of those powers.

First, Lords amendment No. 10 requires the Secretary of State to publish a draft of the order and her reasons for making it, including, of course, her reasoning as to why the designation order would be more effective. Secondly, Lords amendment No. 12 adds to the list—with bitter regret, I concede defeat on the list principle to the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire, following weeks in Committee—of persons whom the Secretary of State must consult when considering designating an area. The list will include not only those who reside in an area but those who carry out business there. I therefore suggest that the amendments give the local government community—the local authorities and the people most likely to be affected by a designation order—far greater ability to influence the decision about whether to designate an area and the form and powers that designation may take.

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Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): Lords amendment No. 8, to which the Under-Secretary referred, states that

Who will discharge those functions—the local planning authority or the HCA?

Mr. Wright: It will probably be the HCA in those circumstances. I hope that that reassures the right hon. Gentleman.

Lembit Öpik: I think that the Under-Secretary was busking it in his response to the right hon. Gentleman. I am not sure that the Bill provides for what the Under-Secretary claims, but perhaps he will get some inspiration during the debate. I want to ask him about consultation. Although I welcome the improvements constituted by the extended lists of individuals and organisations that must be consulted, how can he be confident that the mere requirement of consultation will result in a potentially obstinate HCA taking the advice? How can he be confident that the consultation will not simply be window dressing that changes nothing?

Mr. Wright: There are several answers, which, I hope, will reassure the hon. Gentleman. First, he used the term an “obstinate HCA”, and I do not believe that that will happen. As I said, the HCA’s culture will be one of, “How can we help?” and, “What positive aspects can we bring to the table?” That certainly reflects our debate in Committee. Secondly, the amendments that were made in the other place increase transparency and accountability. I shall explain why that is the case.

Grant Shapps (Welwyn Hatfield) (Con): I understand from the many amendments that we are considering that the Under-Secretary and his team recognise that the HCA was in danger of taking on powers that could be used, perhaps by a future chief executive, in a way that local authorities might find overpowering. However, does the Under-Secretary believe he has gone far enough to ensure that a future chief executive and a future Secretary of State—of any party—could not use the powers in a way that could fundamentally undermine local democracy?

Mr. Wright: We are fairly happy with what we have achieved. The Bill already contained significant powers and controls. Clauses 13 and 14, especially the provisions for a designation order and ensuring that the agency is a local planning authority, include considerable safeguards. As a result of concerns that the hon. Gentleman raised in Committee and anxieties that were expressed in the other place, we have gone further. We have strengthened the Bill, and I believe that that was appropriate.

Let me deal with the point made by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) about how we ensure appropriate consultation, a matter to which we do not simply pay lip service. Lords amendment No. 21 requires the preparation and publication by the agency of a statement of local involvement, which sets out its policy for involving local authorities and people with special knowledge or relevant experience in the exercise of functions conferred on it by the designation order.
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The amendment also requires that, when the agency sets up a committee or sub-committee for the purposes of exercising functions that a designation order confers on it, or appoints a member to such a committee or sub-committee, it must inform every local authority for the designated area and invite them to suggest one or more candidates for membership. Those additional strengths improve transparency and accountability.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): Clause 45 allows the HCA to appoint an urban development corporation to act as its agent. Surely that vehicle will be the norm, because if we totally nationalise that function and set up a committee, it will be a million miles from local communities. Is it not likely that clause 45 will be used a lot, so that there is a local urban development corporation within the footprint of the local authority, which will have lost the planning powers?

Mr. Wright: No, I tend to disagree. What will happen will depend on the local circumstances of the area. It may be that a UDC will not be used, but what I would hope is that what happens comes about as a result of consultation, partnership and negotiation between the local authority, relevant bodies and the agency. The true strength that the provisions in the Bill provide is that flexibility and support, as well as considerable resources, to allow local circumstances to dictate what is needed.

The other place also asked whether sufficient parliamentary scrutiny could be afforded to any designation order by the negative resolution procedure, which was modelled on previous drafting of legislation, particularly the Leasehold Reform, Housing and Urban Development Act 1993. However, on reflection, the Government believe that it is more appropriate, given the exceptional nature of the case if there were to be a designation order, that each such case should be subject to parliamentary scrutiny. Therefore, Lords amendments Nos. 202, 207 and 208 require any designation order under clause 13 to be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure.

There was significant debate, both in Committee and in the other place, about the HCA’s powers to fund unregistered providers to provide low-cost home ownership accommodation. I was very much struck by the argument advanced in Committee by my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford), whom I am delighted to see in his place, namely that the arrangements under the Bill as drafted did not achieve a level playing field with respect to regulatory arrangements for registered and non-registered providers when the agency provides and funds low-cost home ownership.

To address my right hon. Friend’s points, Lords amendments Nos. 33 to 36 help to level that playing field. In particular, Lords amendment No. 33 places a requirement on the HCA to consult the regulator when funding such low-cost home ownership accommodation. That should ensure that the burden of complying with the regulator’s standards is not significantly different from the burden of complying with the HCA’s contractual requirements. I hope that that move is welcomed by my right hon. Friend, as it certainly has been by key stakeholders such as the National Housing Federation.

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