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Session 2007 - 08
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General Committee Debates
Housing and Regeneration Bill

Housing and Regeneration Bill

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairmen: Mr. Joe Benton , Mr. Roger Gale
Blackman, Liz (Vice-Chamberlain of Her Majesty's Household)
Blackman-Woods, Dr. Roberta (City of Durham) (Lab)
Brown, Lyn (West Ham) (Lab)
Burt, Alistair (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con)
George, Andrew (St. Ives) (LD)
Gwynne, Andrew (Denton and Reddish) (Lab)
Holmes, Paul (Chesterfield) (LD)
Hurd, Mr. Nick (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con)
Love, Mr. Andrew (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op)
Moran, Margaret (Luton, South) (Lab)
Raynsford, Mr. Nick (Greenwich and Woolwich) (Lab)
Shapps, Grant (Welwyn Hatfield) (Con)
Slaughter, Mr. Andy (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush) (Lab)
Smith, Ms Angela C. (Sheffield, Hillsborough) (Lab)
Syms, Mr. Robert (Poole) (Con)
Wright, Mr. Iain (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government)
Young, Sir George (North-West Hampshire) (Con)
Hannah Weston, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

Public Bill Committee

Thursday 10 January 2008


[Mr. Joe Benton in the Chair]

Housing and Regeneration Bill

Further written evidence to be reported to the House

H&R 9 Mayor of London
9 am

Clause 1

Establishment and constitution
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Iain Wright): May I say, Mr. Benton, what a pleasure it is to see you in the Chair? I wish you a happy new year—a peaceful and prosperous one—and I extend my wishes to all members of the Committee and to officials.
We now come to the traditional clause-by-clause deliberations after our excursion into oral evidence, which is still a recent thing for the House. I have been a member of various Public Bill Committees over the years, especially in this Committee Room. I particularly remember Committee deliberations on the Gambling Act 2005 and various Finance Acts, but only now do I wish that I had taken note of Committee procedure. However, Mr. Benton, I am sure that you will keep me in order.
I wish to spend a little time on clause 1. I do not want to reiterate what was said on Second Reading, but it is important to give the Committee an idea of the reasons behind the establishment of the Homes and Communities Agency, which will help us in subsequent discussions and argument. The HCA will be the Government’s housing and regeneration agency for England. It will join up the delivery of housing and regeneration, and it will bring together, in one place, the functions of English Partnerships, the investment functions of the Housing Corporation, and a range of work carried out by the Department for Communities and Local Government.
That policy direction was prompted by the outcome of a housing and regeneration review conducted by the DCLG in 2006. That is not to say that the existing organisations failed over the past 10 years—far from it. Indeed, the impact assessment states:
“Since 1997 the Government and its delivery agencies have made substantial progress”.
It says that we now have
“77 per cent. of new homes being build on brownfield land compared to just 56 per cent. in 1997.”
It also states that
“English Partnerships has reclaimed over 6,000 hectares of land and has levered in £5.5 billion of private-sector investment into regeneration projects”,
and that
“between 2006-08, the Housing Corporation is building 33 per cent. more homes for only 15 per cent. more resources.”
It is important that we build on those changes. The housing and regeneration review was undertaken to consider the institutional structures for delivering the Government’s housing and regeneration objectives and to make recommendations for improvement. It set out to review the delivery chain for realising Government objectives, and to ensure that the delivery chain would be sufficiently robust to deliver future policies.
I alluded to the fact that the review was prompted by recognition of various features of the existing housing and regeneration delivery structures that would limit our ability to achieve policy ambitions and which would act as barriers or obstacles. Several specific features were identified, including fragmentation and complexity, with funding streams delivered in silos, often to differing time scales and with overlapping remits and products. Indeed, the review found that about two thirds of spending by EP and the Housing Corporation and the relevant departmental spending targets on common objectives, such as the state of regeneration, mixed-use regeneration, strategic growth and low-cost home ownership, showed a lot of duplication.
The review also noted timing and sequencing issues, a scarcity of key skills sets, particularly those necessary to lever in private investment and, to be frank, the over-involvement of the Department in delivery. It also found information asymmetries between different public sector providers and the private sector that increase the costs to the taxpayer, and the need for an updated set of powers to match new and modern methods of delivery.
We were convinced that those features led to the under-exploitation of market opportunities and publicly funded assets, co-ordination failures and frictional costs and raised land costs due to competition within the public sector. As a result, we recognised that, over the longer term, the existing arrangements would not continue to deliver the Government’s ambitions for housing and regeneration.
Significant progress has been made towards improved housing and regeneration outcomes in the past 10 years, but looking ahead to the next decade, the Government’s ambition is to deliver 3 million new homes by 2020, mixed sustainable communities and social mobility. Creating the HCA is a key part of delivering the necessary step change and driving forward the delivery of homes and communities.
In our oral evidence sessions, Sarah Webb of the Chartered Institute of Housing acknowledged the potential of the agency to deliver the needed step change:
“From the very start of this process, we have been supportive of the concept of a national housing agency, now called the Homes and Communities Agency, and of a regulator that is based on customers. The agency has the potential to create a step change in housing supply, which we need, and which will have an impact on customers.”——[Official Report, Housing and Regeneration Public Bill Committee, 11 December 2007; c. 17, Q25.]
The HCA will be a national solution to our current national housing challenge—growing demand and rising aspirations for affordable decent homes. It is an opportunity recognised by a wide range of stakeholders, including the Local Government Association, the National Housing Federation and the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, to name but a few. We cannot afford to miss that opportunity.
Even those who were sceptical of the need to create the HCA or the benefits of doing so are coming round to the idea. For example, in his good evidence to the Committee in December, Lord Best said:
“I have come to the view that this is the moment for a change. Joining up the different parts of government that deal with the delivery of new homes and the regeneration of old places is an enormous task...It is better that they are in one place.”——[Official Report, Housing and Regeneration Public Bill Committee, 13 December 2007; c. 107.]
That brings out an important point. The HCA is about delivering new homes and the regeneration of old places, both of which are essential to the creation of integrated sustainable communities with viable regenerative and economic bases. The agency is about not only delivering housing numbers, but regenerating and reinvigorating the communities in which those houses are built. It is not about imposing solutions on communities. We share the view of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, which has stated:
“We think that meeting housing needs and increasing housing supply is best achieved by working with communities, rather than imposing particular solutions or actions on them.”——[Official Report, Housing and Regeneration Public Bill Committee, 13 December 2007; c. 79, Q126.]
Where possible, we expect the HCA to work with communities and their representatives to deliver solutions that are appropriate to those localities and the needs of their people.
The CPRE also acknowledged the need for the HCA. In evidence to the Committee, it said:
“CPRE recognises that we need to supply more homes to house a growing number of households. We believe that the new agency and the provisions in the Bill should help considerably in achieving that objective.”——[Official Report, Housing and Regeneration Public Bill Committee, 13 December 2007; c. 77.]
It also said that
“we welcome the potential that the new agency brings to tackle some of the very difficult problems that are inevitably associated with difficult-to-redevelop sites in certain locations.”——[Official Report, Housing and Regeneration Public Bill Committee, 13 December 2007; c. 83, Q133.]
This is our aim. We intend the agency to be a generator of new investment. That was picked up in the evidence sessions by the National Housing Federation, which said that
“we strongly welcome this Bill, particularly the part relating to the creation of the Homes and Communities Agency. We have been supportive of that concept and think that the objectives for and the powers of the new agency are sufficiently broadly drawn for it to be potentially a real generator for new investment. That is welcome.”——[Official Report, Housing and Regeneration Public Bill Committee, 11 December 2007; c. 33.]
We recognise that the creation of the HCA presents us with an opportunity to achieve sustainable benefits for the long term. As the CPRE said in oral evidence to the Committee:
“There is a good opportunity when dealing with publicly owned land, or an authority with planning powers, to achieve a broader outcome in the long term, such as homes and communities’ interests and better environmental standards.”——[Official Report, Housing and Regeneration Public Bill Committee, 13 December 2007; c. 79, Q126.]
We do not intend to miss that opportunity. Part of not missing it is ensuring that the right administrative and governance arrangements are in place to secure an effective organisation.
Schedule 1, which clause 1 introduces, sets out requirements regarding the make-up of the board, including how members will be appointed, resign, be removed and be paid. It sets out arrangements for the appointment, terms and conditions and pay and pensions of staff, including the chief executive. The Secretary of State, instead of the HCA, will appoint the first chief executive. We consider that essential for the chief executive to help to shape and structure the new agency at the earliest opportunity. Schedule 1 includes provisions on how the HCA organises its committees, including delegation of the agency’s functions to committees. It includes arrangements on how members of committees can declare interests.
The detailed arrangements for how the HCA will report on its performance, including its accounts, are set out in the schedule. The agency must prepare an annual report on how it has exercised its functions during the year, and it must also prepare a statement of financial accounts for each financial year. Should the Secretary of State consider it necessary, she can direct the agency to provide any other information she requires on its property or the exercise, or proposed exercise, of its functions. Alongside that, other parts of the Bill provide that the Secretary of State can issue directions to the agency, which could prescribe further reporting requirements to Government, although we recognise that as a non-departmental public body, the agency will be independent and should not be unduly directed by Government.
Finally, a tasking framework will be drafted, defining the strategic priorities and objectives of the agency. A financial memorandum, sitting alongside the management statement, will be drafted to set out in detail aspects of the financial framework within which the HCA is required to operate.
I welcome your indulgence, Mr. Benton, in allowing me to set out the position at length, and I hope that I have not been out of order in reiterating what was said on Second Reading—if I were, I am sure that you would have told me quickly. It is important to set the tone of the debate for this and future sittings by making clear the intention behind the agency.
Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): I echo the welcome that the Minister gave you, Mr. Benton, and your colleagues and officials who will look after us in the next few weeks as we get to grips with the Bill following our evidence sessions. I also echo his welcome to all members of the Committee, which is pretty knowledgeable about the subjects that we shall discuss. We have those who have held significant ministerial positions on the subject and Back Benchers who know their way around it well, so the quality of debate and discussion should be high. I hope that that will benefit those who observe the proceedings or who pick up on them in Hansard and various special journals.
I wish to indicate to the Minister our general approach to the clause following the debate on Second Reading. As he knows, we are not necessarily against the establishment of the HCA. The concerns that we mentioned on Second Reading, which will be echoed in Committee, were raised to query and scrutinise the plans and to ensure that the plans achieve the objectives that have been set out. We are not convinced that the background and the Government’s record are as rosy as the Minister has said.
My experience in this place is reasonably extensive, and when there is too much consensus on something there is a danger that the eye is taken off the ball. My life and career are scarred for ever by the experience of the Child Support Agency. As colleagues will know, the plans for it went through the House many years ago with great consensus and perhaps not enough scrutiny of what would actually happen. When the parcel was left in my lap—I hasten to add that it was not my idea—and I became the Minister with responsibility for setting up the CSA in 1992, the problems became obvious after a year or so and I began to wonder about the House’s scrutiny process.
It was interesting to listen to the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert), my Front-Bench colleague who speaks on home affairs, at the conclusion of yesterday’s debate on the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill. He expressed concern that we are not spending enough time on really important issues. We are concerned to use a generally consensual attitude to scrutinise carefully what is being done.
I say that in relation to the establishment of the HCA, because I am not necessarily convinced that the spur for it comes from a great raft of success in the Government’s housing and regeneration policy. Yes, there are intentions, but we are not so sure about delivery. Accordingly, it is essential to ensure that the agency is designed to solve the problems that have occurred, rather than bringing together an already well functioning, well oiled unit that will continue to roll out and deliver on the Government’s objectives.
As the Minister knows, the Government’s house building record is not particularly good. An average of 173,000 units a year were built in the Thatcher and Major years, but the average has been 145,000 a year under the present Government. The agency is designed to clear out the glitches and make things happen, so we must ensure that the problems associated with the failure to deliver the required supply of housing are tackled. In creating the agency, we must give consideration to the way in which it will work, its objectives and the values that drive it, rather than just crossing our fingers and hoping that yet another reorganisation will do the job.
9.15 am
The Opposition do not query the Government’s good intentions on regeneration. As I expressed on Second Reading—I shall come back to this during the early part of our considerations of the Bill—city and urban regeneration has received a tremendous boost in modern times. The work of Michael Heseltine and the city challenge initiative have been continued and developed by this Government. People outside this Committee want political parties to work together on this matter and to acknowledge good work.
It is not true that 1997 was year zero for everything, and it was certainly not year zero for urban regeneration. The Government have carried out some good work, but real holes, gaps and problems remain. There have been a plethora of initiatives on regeneration and a huge number of schemes, such as the neighbourhood management, neighbourhood renewal and neighbourhood support initiatives, the coalfield scheme, the community champions fund, the new deal for communities, the crime reduction initiative, the playing fields initiative and the community green spaces initiative—I could go on.
Some 10 years after the election of a Labour Government, however, and despite the collective impact of those initiatives on society, questions and concerns remain about social mobility and about whether the problems of deep deprivation in areas of extreme poverty have been turned round. We are not querying the good intentions, which we share—we would like credit for doing so—but we are not convinced that the approach has worked. Accordingly, to what extent will the HCA’s regeneration remit help us to meet the objectives behind those initiatives and the large amounts of money that have been spent in so many places? Current analyses of the money spent and results gained do not come down particularly strongly in the Government’s favour. We shall, therefore, query and test out precisely why the agency should deliver any better.
I do not want to dwell too long on clause 1. However, we will also test out the remit of the agency on related matters, such as disability, accessibility, sustainability, design quality and the powers of the agency, which are extensive. Also, will the Minister tell us what guidance will be produced on how the various powers and objectives will work, if that cannot be put in the legislation, in order to ensure that, right from the start, we do not gloss over anything and that we understand what it is about?
In conclusion, we will be as constructive as possible during the course of our consideration of the Bill, which is quite natural because we expect to inherit a lot of what is being discussed relatively soon, so we might as well make it good. However, as always, we have concerns: if this is a top-down solution to problems that would benefit more from a bottom-up analysis and delivery, we are not content to let it go. The Government are very strong on plans, 10-year programmes and initiatives, but not so good on delivery. If the HCA is just another attempt to snow over the problems by saying, “Don’t worry, everything will be all right. We have done this, but you will have to wait a few years for it to settle down before there is any delivery”, it will not be good enough.
That is our approach to clause 1, which provides for the establishment of the HCA. With the caveats that I have mentioned, we accept clause 1 and are ready to proceed from there.
I welcome the Minister to his first major Bill, and my hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield, who now speaks on housing for the Conservative party. I have always found that Committee proceedings involve a lot of work, but that one is put on top of one’s brief and taken into areas where one would not necessarily go, so it is a useful experience. I should like to welcome the Liberal Democrat spokesman, the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik), and I shall—on another occasion. No doubt there are organisational problems, which will be ironed out in due course as part of the Liberal Democrats’ aspiration to double their representation in Parliament.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 1 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
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Prepared 11 January 2008