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I do not suppose that it will be possible to get judicial review when a bland housing development is produced, but it will henceforth be a duty on the Homes and Communities Agency, as well as on local authorities, to be cognisant of the need for good design. I hope that, gradually, we will be able to build up the quality of design and take heed of aesthetics and the attractiveness
of buildings. That will also be a good statement for this generation of planners. In my view, not enough has been done to move on since the 1960s and 1970s.
I also want to deal with the amendments that have most preoccupied the House. Over the past four or five years, my local authority area has endured many of the provisions that are proposed as suitable for the HCA. Some years ago, the House passed an order that created the Thurrock urban development corporation, which took away many planning functions from the local authority. As a Member of Parliament, that caused me a dilemma. I believe in local authority and local decision-making on planning issues, planning applications and proposed developments, but on the other hand, I want the Government to achieve their legitimate aspirations to produce a good reservoir of low-cost housing to rent or buy and to create some prestigious housing, too. That attracts remuneration to a local authority area in the form of high council taxes and other incomes derived from quality and high-value residential development. Social mix is another desirable outcome. I was persuaded that we needed this power, which is why I support the amendments this evening. If the Government are determined to drive through their housing construction policy throughout England, where housing supply is desperately needed for our constituents, the amendments are necessary.
In the light of my experience over the past few years of planning powers being transferred from the local authority to another bodythe urban development corporation in my case, and the HCA under the amendmentsI urge the Minister and his new chief executive Kerslake not to use the local authority as the handling agents. It seems to me that all the chemistry in that regard produces frustration of the Governments objectives, and a dilemma for the local authority officers as to which master they serve. If the planning functions are to be dealt with by a committee of the HCA or an urban development corporation, they should receive and process the applications and send the letter consulting the authority; the local authority should not process those applications, as it is an inevitable cause of frustration and an added level of bureaucracy. I offer that advice to the Minister and through him to the HCA chief executive.
If planning powers are to be designated and transferred from the local authority to another body, it should be done not just by use class order or according to the size and scale of the proposed developmentthe number of hectares or residential unitsbut by geographical area. Development control and enforcement are indivisible from the wider picture. Although the HCA might not want to get involved in what it might consider nitty-gritty issues, all too often enforcement is the other side of the coin of planning development. If we want to create a good housing development, but an industry is non-conforming or arguably has not got planning permission, enforcement action or relocation by the HCA or its committee and by the local authority go at different speeds. There is a danger that the lines will be blurred and objectives will not be achieved.
I am prepared to elaborate on the matter, with the Minister and whomever he likes, following the experience of the Thurrock urban development corporation, which was, and still is, a good idea, but has been frustrated by a lack of clarity as to who has what powers and the division of loyalties among the officials and professional staff between it and the local authority.
When the Minister opened the debate, he was kind enough to say that my speech on one of the first amendments had made a major impact on him. His demeanour at the time concealed that, and the amendment was dismissed. However, I am glad that it had a delayed impact and the point about design was taken on board.
The bulk of the debate has been about the so-called nuclear option, when the Secretary of State makes a designation order and the HCA takes over the planning powers of the local authority. Clearly, there is tension between the political imperatives of Ministers and the HCA, who want things done and development achieved, and the legitimate local interests of the local authority. One must make a judgment. When the Conservatives were in power, we set up development corporations, and I took some of the orders through the House. I therefore strongly defend Ministers ability to intervene.
However in some, admittedly rare, circumstances the regeneration challenges faced by some local authorities means that they need additional help and support.
I hope that he will confirm that that is the case, and that it will not be a question of money. Intervention should not take place simply because the HCA has resources that the local authority does not have. The issue should be genuinely one of capacity to develop, rather than of access to resources. If resources alone were holding the matter up, one could simply argue that they should be given to the local authority. There should be some reason other than lack of access to resources for the power to be activated. Will the Minister confirm what has been virtually taken for grantedthat, as far as he knows, his Secretary of State is not hatching any plans to make a designation order in respect of any part of England in the relatively near future?
At the beginning and end of his speech, the Minister said rightly that the climate had changed. There was an implication that the amendments under consideration were a response to that change, but I hope that he will not make that case. The climate has changed, and if he is to respond to that, he will need a much more dramatic response than that suggested in the many amendments under consideration. I hope that his Department is considering a range of initiatives that will help to address that change, because, welcome though the amendments are, they are not an adequate response to it.
The hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps), who seemed to welcome the moves made with regard to the amendments, mentioned three points. First, he made welcome comments about our move with regard to design, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) referred. Secondly, he reiterated what he said in Committee about the relationship between the agency and local authorities. Thirdly, he mentioned the number of amendments717tabled by the Government since the Bill was introduced.
The whole House would agree that this is an important Bill on a vital topichousing and regenerationand it is important that we get it right. I make no apologies for making changes and listening to points made by Members on both sides of the House, and by Members of the other place, to ensure that we get the legislation right. As I have tried to make clear throughout the Bills passage, I am in listening mode. I have tried to take on board the points about sustainability made by my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods), those about design made in another place and referred to in Committee, and those about accessibility made by the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young). I have taken those and other points away for consideration, and tabled amendments. Therefore, I do not agree with the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield because I believe that there has been an element of political consensus to ensure appropriate scrutiny, and the Bill and its provisions have been much improved as a result.
Mr. Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): Surely the Minister will concede that it is deeply unsatisfactory that the bulk of the time available to debate the Bill on Report was taken up with relatively arcane discussions of the housing revenue account. In that respect, the vast majority of the amendments were not even debated.
Mr. Wright: I disagree with the hon. Gentleman, although I understand his comments with regard to the arcane features of the housing revenue account. I do not want to be ruled out or order, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but it is important that the financing of council housing is appropriately debated. It was a major topic of concern, certainly to my hon. Friends.
Lembit Öpik: I happen to agree with the specific concern of the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson). Will the Minister assure us that if we have inadvertently built in weakness to the Bill as a result of the compression of time and lack of consideration of an enormous number of amendments, he will secure Government time to ensure that we can right those wrongs, either in Statutory Instrument Committees or, ideally, on the Floor of the House? We all want the Bill to work, but there will almost certainly be unintended consequences arising from our inability to test aspects of the Bill on the Floor of the House prior to its implementation.
Mr. Wright: I understand what the hon. Gentleman has said and I respect his views, but I repeat that a fair proportion of the amendments tabled in the other place were a direct response not only to his good self, but to amendments tabled by Members on both sides of this House. I consider that the Government have listened and responded, and that as a result the Bill is much tighter and displays a real political consensus that was not there before. I said at the end of Third Reading that it was a much better Bill following the scrutiny applied by all Members in Committee, and I stand by that.
May I press the Minister a little further? He has almost congratulated himself on listening, which is, of course, very welcome. The right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford) made the same point. However, given the number of amendments
tabled, would it not have been better to listen at an earlier stage? The amendments could then have been scrutinised properly in Committee, and we would not have had to deal with 274 amendmentsI think that is correct; I know that the Minister will correct me if I am wrongon Report.
Mr. Wright: In many instances, we had to resolve to take amendments away and think about how they could be enacted. The amendment on tolerated trespass is one example. I know that I may be ruled out of order if I refer to other groups of amendments, but the proposals relating to the European Court of Human Rights, homelessness and eligibility for housing involved complicated issues and required time for reflection. I think that the handling of the Bill in both Houses has greatly strengthened its provisions, and has made the HCA sufficiently strong and flexible to deal with concerns about increasing supply and regenerating communities in England.
Margaret Moran (Luton, South) (Lab): I agree with my hon. Friend. In Committee, when we were discussing the establishment of this important organisation, he repeatedly offered to take the amendments away to consider them, and I am very pleased that they have returned to the House in their current form. Does he agree, however, that it is unfortunate that, largely because of what the Opposition were doing, we devoted almost all our time to this issue and did not spend enough time discussing the Tenant Services Authority? I feel that we could have focused more on the empowerment of tenants, and I hope that we shall move on to the subject swiftly this evening.
The subject of design was raised by the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield and my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock, and I agree with both of them. The hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield may be surprised to learn that I think local planning authorities should be more robust in rejecting planning applications that do not step up to the plate. My hon. Friend saidI think I quote him correctlythat at best some housing developments are bland, and that some suggest lazy initiatives on the part of developers. I would go further: I consider some developments depressing and demoralising.
Throughout the Bills passage, I have said that the current system is short-term and expensive for the public purse. If we build boxes or rabbit hutches now, in 20 or 30 years we shall need substantial amounts of public money to deal with the resulting problems. I do not want someone to stand at this Dispatch Box in 2040 saying that we must deal with the design and planning errors of 2010 or 2015.
Margaret Moran: Many of us hark back to the good old days of Parker Morris standards. We know that good design has been achieved in the past. Can my hon. Friend assure us that, if the Government purchase existing developments in order to meet our housing targets, those properties will meet high design standards, their quality will be no lower than we would expect of our affordable housing stock, and their design will last for generations, as it will need to?
Mr. Wright: My hon. Friend has raised an important point. As she will know, we recently announced that £200 million would be given to the Housing Corporation so that it could buy empty homes during the current economic downturn to ensure the continuation of supply and development. I believe that the additional safeguards in the Bill relating to design and accessibility will help to achieve the objectives to which she has referred.
Andrew Mackinlay: I welcome the Ministers comments. Will he take this opportunity to encourage local authorities to take more advantage of their powers to demand good facing materials, and also not only to use but to enforce their powers relating to landscaping conditions? That is often an area of neglect: after their imposition, such powers are not enforced.
Mr. Wright: I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend. As I said at the outset, the current framework provided by planning policy statement 1 and, in particular, PPS3 makes it clear that local authorities should deal with planning and design. It is true that landscaping is sometimes an afterthought when it ought to be taken into account at the start of the development process. The HCA will ensure that the Academy for Sustainable Communities can provide the necessary expertise, helping to increase skills and capacity in relation to a range of planning, building and landscape functions. I hope my hon. Friend agrees that that is a positive step.
The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) described the amendments as encouraging, but made the reasonable point that we should not produce legislation based on the personality of the first chief executive. I do not think that we have done that. I think that we have a very strong first chief executive in Sir Bob Kerslake, but I also think that the framework established by the Bill will ensure that that will continue.
The hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield repeated a point that he had made many times in Committee about the relationship between the HCA and local authorities. I believe that Lords amendment No. 51 goes a long way towards dealing with his concern about local government involvement by ensuring greater transparency and accountability. It sets out a clear framework enabling the agency to consult local government representatives so that they can implement the agenda together. I did not detect any welcome for that provision in his comments, but I am sure that he welcomes it none the less.
The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire was right to use the phrase nuclear option in relation to designation orders and ensuring that the HCA was the local planning authority. We consider that orders would be made in extremely rare circumstances. The right hon. Gentleman also repeated a direct question that he had asked me in Committee: he asked whether we had any immediate plans to ensure that these powers would be exercised. The short answer is no, as it was in Committee.
I detected a general welcome for the amendments. I hope that the House will accept them, because I believe that they make it easier for the HCA to improve housing
supply and regenerate communities in England in a sustainable and well-designed way.
Mr. Wright: This group of amendments is related to part 2 of the Bill, which establishes the new social housing regulator. Before I come to the amendments, I would like briefly to update the House on important developments to the regulator since the Bill left us to go to another place following the Third Reading debate in March. First, the regulator has a new name. During the Bills passage through this House it was known as the office for social tenants and landlordsor Oftenant. Without exception, nobody liked the name. It has now become the Tenant Services Authoritythe TSAwhich better reflects the organisations core regulatory function of protecting tenants. Secondly, the two senior appointments to the regulator have been made. Anthony Mayer is the first chair and will bring a wealth of experience to the role, given his excellent track record in social housing, local government and the financial sector. Peter Marsh is an excellent choice as first chief executive; his background in the fields of registered social landlords and local authorities will mean that he recognises the need to ensure tenants receive a high-quality service. Finally, the House should be aware of our recent announcement that we would like to see at least two of the positions on the TSA board filled by people with direct experience of being a tenant. Any regulatory system that professes to put tenants at its heart has to give tenants a say at the highest level. With these board appointments, that is precisely what we intend to do.
I would now like to discuss an issue that has occupied us since the Bills introduction: cross-domain regulation. As we have made clear from the start, we are fundamentally committed to expanding the regulators remit to cover local authority housing. This would be consistent with the recommendations set out by Professor Cave in his report, Every Tenant Matters. I believe this commitment became even clearer when the Governments draft legislative programme for the fourth Session was published in May, as it included a community empowerment, housing and economic regeneration Bill that would deliver, among other things, cross-domain regulation.
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