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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)
Hurd, Mr. Nick (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con)
Love, Mr. Andrew (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op)
Moran, Margaret (Luton, South) (Lab)
Öpik, Lembit (Montgomeryshire) (LD)
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. Roger Gale in the Chair]

Housing and Regeneration Bill

Clause 2

Amendment proposed [this day]: No. 34, in clause 2, page 1, line 11, at end insert—
‘(aa) to carry out, or provide for the carrying out of, regular assessments of the nature and scale of housing need in England,’.—[Andrew George.]
Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.
1 pm
The Chairman: I remind the Committee that with this we are discussing the following:
Amendment No. 35, in clause 2, page 2, line 2, after ‘subsection (1)—’, insert—
‘“housing need” includes the condition of those who are homeless and those who are housed in insecure, unsatisfactory or overcrowded accommodation.’.
New clause 7—Rough Sleepers Steering Group
‘(1) The Secretary of State shall, within six months of the coming into force of this Act, establish a body (“the Steering Group”) to review the services provided to rough sleepers in England and draw up an action plan to provide adequate hostel and permanent accommodation.
(2) The membership of the Steering Group shall include an equal number of members from central government, local government, registered providers of social housing and other relevant charitable organisations, with an independent chair.
(3) The Steering Group shall make recommendations within six months of its establishment in respect of the matters referred to in subsection (1).’.
Grant Shapps (Welwyn Hatfield) (Con): As I was saying, our greatest concern with homelessness is that the figures for rough sleepers are inaccurate, and it is rough sleeping that concerns us most here. Two main points remain to be covered.
The rough sleepers unit was disbanded on the basis that the two-thirds reduction target had been met; the unit, which can be credited with a great deal of that reduction, was effectively wound up by bringing it into a wider homelessness body under the Department for Communities and Local Government. To have the new body deal simply with the wider issues of homelessness—Labour Back Benchers have pointed out that there is a great difference between homelessness and rough sleeping—rather than having a unit that deals only with rough sleeping may be a mistake.
The new clause is an attempt to bring a rough sleepers steering group into being. Its purpose is to re-emphasise the importance of tackling rough sleeping and its consequences. We propose setting up a separately recognised body within six months, and having it report within a further six months. We can draw upon the experience of the rough sleepers unit, and the work that it did in contributing to the reduction in rough sleeping. It worked, because it concentrated minds on the issue, which is the point of the new clause.
I had anticipated an intervention along the lines of the one made this morning by the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich, that the new clause would simply add to the list of objectives under clause 2. We do not want to repeat that earlier debate—it went as far as it could—but the objectives of the agency need to be set out somewhere. The problems of homelessness and rough sleeping are sufficiently important that I am surprised that a detailed reference has not been made to plans to improve the lot of rough sleepers or to re-emphasise the issue anywhere else in the Bill.
I am interested to hear from the Minister whether I have missed something in the 280 clauses that could help, or whether he is amenable to seeing mention of the issue in the Bill or to providing some reassurance on the question of rough sleeping. In particular, will he comment on the problem with the counting of rough sleepers that was referred to earlier, when we heard that the Department counts an estimate of nought to 10 rough sleepers as zero? I would be interested to hear whether anything can be done about that.
I have provided an outline of our reasons for tabling new clause 7. I hope that the Minister will take some of those points on board.
Dr. Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab): May I take this opportunity, Mr, Gale, of welcoming you to the Chair this afternoon and say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship?
I want to speak against new clause 7, but not because I am not interested in the issue of rough sleepers. It is important to put on record that the Government have put a substantial amount of effort into decreasing the number of rough sleepers. Indeed, Opposition Members recognise that numbers have fallen by 73 per cent. since 1998. The Government have signalled their intention to continue the reduction, with a range of measures to tackle new homelessness. A key aim of the Bill is to enable more accommodation to be made available to help tackle the problem of rough sleepers. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham that the problem of rough sleeping goes much wider than the availability of accommodation and involves issues of individuals and their wider circumstances.
I want to correct the impression given by the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield that the Government have not invested in social housing, which is not accurate. By 2010, the Government will have invested about £40 billion in social housing and bringing homes up to the decent homes standard, and about 3.6 million homes have already been brought up to that standard. That is important, because the Government have rightly accepted that the emphasis and priority with social housing should be about not only improving numbers, but improving quality and trying to tackle the decades of under-investment in social housing under previous Conservative Governments. I want to put on the record my support for that and for Labour’s record on tackling homelessness and investing in social housing. Of course, we want to invest a lot more in social housing—hence, the Bill—but the record is reasonable, which should be acknowledged.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Iain Wright): Good afternoon, Mr. Gale. May I wish you a happy, peaceful and prosperous new year, as I did Mr. Benton, this morning? It is good to have you in the Chair.
I welcome the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire to the Committee. He was consigned to the touchline for most of the morning, which I thought a bit cheeky—it does not get any better, Mr. Gale—but that was to do with the procedures of the House. The hon. Gentleman did his best in the Hartlepool by-election to stop me from coming here, but since I have been here, he has been kindness personified. He is a true friend, and I look forward to battling with him over the Bill.
I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes), who was with us on Second Reading and during the oral evidence sessions. His commitment to social housing, particularly council housing, is in no doubt, and I thank him for his work in Committee.
Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): May I thank the Minister and the Committee for their generosity? I felt the Minister’s sympathy as I sat out there, homeless from the Committee. I did my best to prevent the Minister from being elected in his constituency, but that was because I knew that he would be too good as a Minister. Even so, he has exceeded my expectations.
Mr. Wright: I shall move on swiftly, Mr. Gale—we have all just had lunch and might start to feel a little sick; mutual appreciation societies can go too far.
We have had an interesting debate, and I have been grateful for our discussions on the amendments, which are helping us to tease out ideas about the agency and what it should do. I must point out that all the objects of the agency, including improving the supply and quality of housing, must be carried out with a view to meeting the needs of people in England, including their housing needs.
I was interested in the comments of the hon. Member for St. Ives on the need for a more substantial awareness and analysis of the national housing need—I think that those were his words. It is also important that local authorities have a central role in identifying specific housing needs in their areas and that there is wider regional consideration. That is why regional planning bodies and local authorities carry out assessments of housing needs in their areas, using advice from the national housing and planning advice unit. My hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton made that point very well in an intervention.
The Homes and Communities Agency will be expected to work in partnership with those regional and local bodies to consider social housing needs in different places. I imagine that that work will feed into regional and local plans and the overall work of the agency. The agency will also be expected to support local authorities and build their capacity on housing and regeneration issues. As part of that, it is likely to work with local authorities to develop housing needs assessments for various places. We are keen to avoid unnecessary duplication of such work.
On new clause 7, I am not convinced that we need a statutory body, which would add a layer of bureaucracy, to consider rough sleeper services. Both Government and Opposition Members have rightly said that in the past 10 years, we have achieved an enormous amount in partnership with the voluntary sector and local authorities to tackle and reduce homelessness, particularly in its worst form—rough sleeping. Because of that, it is difficult to see what added value would arise from the establishment of a steering group.
One reason why I like serving on Public Bill Committees is that themes seem to emerge. We have discussed year zero, whether or not it is 1997, since which everything was good and before which everything was bad. The hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield made an important point: politicians and Members of Parliament are criticised an awful lot, and I do not accept that hon. Members of any party come into public service in order to increase homelessness—I agree with him on every word of that. However, public service, particularly the governing of the country, is about priorities and where to allocate resources to match those priorities and to achieve objectives. I must say that the record of the Conservative Government before 1997 on homelessness and rough sleeping did not match our priorities, and since 1997 this Government have a record that is second to none.
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): I hope that the Minister recognises that in 1990, the rough sleepers initiative was launched, devoting substantial resources to reducing rough sleepers in London, with the back-up of hostels and the co-operation of voluntary organisations. Against that background, I hope that he will tone down his somewhat harsh criticism of the regime before 1997.
Mr. Wright: I suggest to the right hon. Gentleman that, although that he was a first-class Housing Minister in a Conservative Government, he was swimming against the tide of his Administration. The priorities were not there in the Thatcher and Major Administrations.
Lyn Brown (West Ham) (Lab): Does the Minister agree that one issue in dealing with rough sleepers in that period was that the problems of those on the streets were not analysed? It was therefore not possible effectively to place resources that would get people off the streets and keep them off the streets, giving them an opportunity for life to come.
Mr. Wright: I agree absolutely, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s work on the matter. She is a passionate champion, and she is rightly pushing to ensure that we do even more, building upon our unprecedented success in tackling homelessness and rough sleeping.
Mr. Nick Raynsford (Greenwich and Woolwich) (Lab): Does the Minister recall that, in the dying days of the Conservative Government in 1996, they legislated, against the strong view of the entire voluntary sector and our party, to reduce the statutory obligation on local authorities to assist homeless people? That was remedied by Labour when it returned to power, with legislation that was introduced in 2001 and that eventually reached the statute book in 2002. The only advances in the statutory definition of the rights of homeless people have come under Labour Governments—in 1997, with the strong support of the Liberals, and in 2002. That is when there has been definition in law of rights for the homeless.
1.15 pm
The Chairman: Order. I was under the impression that the Government want to make progress this afternoon. I cannot find anything in what the right hon. Gentleman has just said that is remotely connected with any of the clauses or amendments under discussion. Perhaps we can return to the Bill.
Mr. Wright: I want to put on record that I completely agree with what my right hon. Friend has said. The Government have effectively tackled the most visible form of homelessness—that of people sleeping on the streets. We want to do more, and we will. In 1998, the then Prime Minister set a target that by 2002 the number of rough sleepers should be reduced by at least two thirds. That target, as the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield has conceded, was met ahead of time and is being sustained. I am wary of your rulings, Mr. Gale, but it is important to focus on the real success of the past decade. In 1998, there were 1,850 rough sleepers on the streets of England on any single night. In 2007, as the hon. Gentleman said in his contribution, there are now fewer than 500; he made an important point about rough sleeping counts, which he has done outside the Committee. That has been echoed in the Committee by my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton; no one is suggesting that we are collecting the number of every single person who sleeps rough on every single night of the year. That is not the intention, and it would be difficult to achieve.
Street counts provide a useful snapshot of people sleeping rough on a single night. The methodology was developed by the Government some nine years ago, in partnership with the voluntary sector. I want to reiterate that those counted on a single night do not represent all those who may have experienced sleeping rough over the course of a year. As my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton has rightly stated, street counts are still the most robust method for measuring the changing situation on the streets over a sustained period. That conclusion is backed up by the National Audit Office:
“The count is designed to capture the number of people sleeping rough on a given night rather than over the course of a year. Counts might not capture all of those sleeping rough, but because the methodology has been applied consistently area-to-area and year-on-year, it is the most accurate measure of the relative scale of the problem and change over time.”
Grant Shapps: With respect, the Minister is somewhat skirting around the issue. We are agreed that the count is inaccurate, because not everyone is found and the actual number of rough sleepers is therefore not provided. We also agree that the count gives an indication of the trend. However, the point of the steering group’s work would be to find and define a new system for enabling the count to include those numbers—not counting them as zero, but as the actual number that came in from the local authority. Will the Minister address that point?
Mr. Wright: The hon. Gentleman has raised an interesting point. I do not want to carry out spin with rough sleeping figures. I want to have robust evidence, so that we can drive down the figures further. That is a major priority of the Government, and it will continue to be so.
Lyn Brown: Does the Minister agree that because services for the homeless and street-sleeping people have increased over the past 10 years, we now have people on the ground who know the area that they are dealing with and where those people sleep? The count has become more robust and more accurate as we have progressed through the decade, because we have more knowledge of people, locally, on the ground, who know their clients at the shelters and the hostels.
Mr. Wright: My hon. Friend has raised an interesting point, which is useful in moving the debate forward. That partnership between service users—I hate that phrase, but it is appropriate here—local authorities and voluntary sector groups is vital to driving the figure down further.
I am going to come directly to the important point about nought to 10 estimates being treated as zero, hopefully reflecting my indication and that of the Minister for Housing that we want to be as honest, up front and robust as possible in our methodology. I do not want to be flippant, but the reason for the current situation is that it is not necessary for all local authorities to carry out a full rough sleeping count. In many areas, rough sleeping might not be an issue. Our guidance states:
“If the local authority feels that it has developed a rough sleeping problem — and in particular it estimates that there may be more than 10 rough sleepers in the area, a full count should be carried out to clarify the situation.”
The decision to go for the lower end of banded estimates was based on clear precedence, where local authority estimates consistently overestimated the number actually found in counts. The current approach was suggested some nine or 10 years ago in consultation with the local government sector, and we carried out its wishes.
I am mindful of your ruling, Mr. Gale, but I want to reiterate an important point: we have applied the same methodology in producing the national estimate. We accept that the total does not represent everyone sleeping rough, but it is an accurate reflection of changes in the scale of rough sleeping nationally. I am committed publicly to reconsidering the matter. As part of our work with the voluntary sector and key local authorities, we are looking at the counting methodology and a future rough sleeping strategy in order to have as robust a methodology as possible.
Grant Shapps: Will the Minister tell us when the review will take place
Mr. Wright: Discussions about the review are taking place between departmental officials. However, I should be able to return on Report and provide a firmer indication, if the hon. Gentleman wishes.
I shall return to our successes on rough sleeping, which resulted from the effective partnership between central Government, local authorities and the voluntary sector, which is recognised throughout the world. Jenny Edwards, the chief executive of Homeless Link, which is the national umbrella organisation for the voluntary sector, said:
“Our country has inspired the rest of the world in the way it has tackled rough sleeping, with the Government, the voluntary sector and local authorities working together. Thousands of people, many who had been written off by society, have come off the streets and rebuilt their lives. The key has been to make sure their aspirations are at the heart of this journey. The progress so far inspires and encourages us to redouble our efforts over the next few years, to get rough sleeping as close to zero as possible in all areas of the country.”
We are not complacent and realise that we need to look ahead.
The time is right to consider a rough sleeping strategy for the next three years. We have informally consulted the voluntary sector on the key elements of that strategy, and we will work closely with our partners to make further inroads into rough sleeping. Our strategy needs to bring together all the elements involved in getting people off the streets, such as tackling their support needs, making hostels places of change that help rough sleepers get back on track and moving people into settled accommodation and employment.
We have been talking about priorities in government. I have made the point that rough sleeping and homelessness have been major priorities for the Labour Government since 1997, backed up by substantial levels of resources and funding allocations. It has always been important to ensure that funding is available to tackle rough sleeping. To put the discussion into context, we recently announced about £150 million of homelessness grants for local authorities over the next three years to help prevent homelessness and to tackle rough sleeping. That is the biggest ever cash injection for homelessness services. In addition, we are providing more than £51 million of homelessness grants to the voluntary sector over the next three years. Our work with rough sleepers will extend much wider than just helping them off the streets.
As Minister with responsibility for homelessness, I am incredibly proud of our considerable investment in improving hostels. Some £90 million has been spent over the past three years on 175 projects in 62 areas. We want good hostels with rough sleepers being linked into training, employment and reskilling, so that they can move on to live independently, and we are reiterating that investment with further spending. In the latest comprehensive spending review, we have secured £70 million of new funding for hostels over the next three years, bringing the total investment in getting rough sleepers off the streets up to £160 million. I say to the hon. Gentleman—match that!
Grant Shapps: It is clear, according to the Minister’s figures, that £90 million has been invested over the past three years. However, over the next three years, that figure will reduce to £70 million. Will the Minister therefore confirm that there will be a cut in expenditure on hostels over the next three years?
Mr. Wright: No. My sense, from speaking to the voluntary sector organisations that are involved in this, is that they are extremely pleased with the settlement. They thought that this whole area would be cut substantially; it has not been. The settlement allows us to build on very real successes. A lot of the work that went on in the previous three years was to put down markers and set up the necessary infrastructure. We can now go on and build almost 100 per cent. on delivery, and I think that that is very important.
We are really moving homelessness policy away from just helping somebody to get a bed for the night. We are helping ambition, raising aspirations and providing training opportunities to make sure that people stay permanently aware. Therefore, all the elements are in place to ensure we can continue to tackle rough sleeping and further reduce the numbers of those who are unfortunate enough to be on the streets. Our rough sleeping strategy, which will be drawn up with our partners, represents the way forward. It will be backed by substantial funding for local authorities and the voluntary sector.
The best way to tackle homelessness is to make sure that we have the homes necessary to eliminate it. That was why I was disappointed that the Conservative party did not support the Bill on Second Reading and thus did not support our aim of ensuring that we have the homes needed to make homelessness a thing of the past. I hope that the hon. Member for St. Ives will withdraw the amendment.
Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD): I am very grateful to the Minister and others who have contributed to the debate on the two amendments tabled by me and my no longer banished hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire. To be honest, they were intended to be probing amendments to encourage the Minister to acknowledge that there were difficulties. The housing market is not simplistic or two dimensional. The figures need to be balanced for social housing, intermediate housing and market housing. The task of establishing how sub-markets work in different areas is much more challenging than perhaps others had previously acknowledged.
I was disappointed, especially in the light of my hon. Friend’s effusive remarks about the Minister, by the way in which the Minister dismissed the arguments that I advanced in our debate this morning. The fact is that local authorities have a statutory responsibility, but only for housing involving certain types of need. Not all types are picked up by the local housing register, which is not sufficiently sensitive to take account of a wide range of needs. For example, single men cannot necessarily express their need or get on the register quite as easily as other groups.
I mentioned rural areas. The logic is compelling. There is no point waiting for a bus on a Sunday if there is no bus. Likewise, there is no point expressing a need for social housing in a village where there is no housing available. Leaving this to local authorities and their statutory responsibilities means that those kinds of nuances are simply not picked up. Similarly, the way in which the sub-market operates is not fully recognised—not just in the Kate Barker review, but also in the Government’s response to that, and in the regional assemblies and sub-regional plans. They all seem to fail to reflect the relationship between the open market and the need for an intermediate market. There is a need for a great deal more work than has been provided up until now.
1.30 pm
Let me give an example. There is a requirement to understand properly the extent of the need for intermediate market housing, such as low-cost and shared ownership housing. Where the assessment is poor and the figures perhaps provide for a large number of market houses, it makes it much more difficult to bring forward the large numbers of intermediate market houses that are needed in an area. That is because landowners will always hope that their land will be apportioned for market housing and will therefore not make it available for intermediate markets. By getting the assessment right, we get the figures right, and by getting the figures right, we will be more likely to be able to deliver.
Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): Local authorities have a strategic role on housing in their local area. They have not only responsibilities, but powers to allow them to intervene in the housing market. While I accept that there are difficulties in relation to funding, if there are other shortcomings, surely they relate mainly to the reluctance of local authorities to use those powers—to use the strategic overview that they should have in a local area—to do what the hon. Gentleman is asking.
Andrew George: That intervention is extremely helpful because it emphasises that if local authorities are not using the full range of powers that they have, and doing only the minimum that they can get away with in terms of the statutory duties, it means that the new agency will not be as well informed as it perhaps should be by commissioning surveys, or perhaps academic analyses, so that it can be satisfied that the information that it gets from the ground properly reflects what is going on and helps it in its forward planning. It is on that basis that I am troubled by the Minister’s response. I will therefore press the amendment to a Division.
Question put, That the amendment be made:—
The Committee divided: Ayes 2, Noes 7.
Division No. 1 ]
George, Andrew
Öpik, Lembit
Blackman, Liz
Blackman-Woods, Dr. Roberta
Brown, Lyn
Gwynne, Andrew
Love, Mr. Andrew
Smith, Ms Angela C. (Sheffield, Hillsborough)
Wright, Mr. Iain
Question accordingly negatived.
Dr. Blackman-Woods: I beg to move amendment No. 75, in clause 2, page 1, line 14, leave out ‘or’ and insert ‘, sustainable development or other’.
The amendment, which stands in my name and that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich, is essentially a prompt to the Government that the concept of sustainability, and in particular sustainable development, should be explicitly mentioned in the objectives of the HCA in clause 2(1).
The Government have an excellent record of putting sustainability at the heart of the development and regeneration agenda. It is reflected in the revision of planning policy guidance note 1 to planning policy statement 1 to concentrate specifically on sustainable development in the planning system. It is also reflected in PPS3, where there is a specific mention in the Government’s strategic housing policy objectives of the desire to create sustainable, inclusive and mixed communities in all areas—urban and rural. As that is a strategic objective of the Government, it would be useful if it were emphasised in the objectives of the HCA. Of course, the Government supported the Sustainable Communities Bill last year, meaning that we now have the Sustainable Communities Act 2007, which concentrates in particular on supporting local authorities to provide sustainable development.
With that wealth of legislation and policy, the Government have clearly flagged their direction with respect to encouraging sustainability, not only in matters such as renewable energy or greater energy efficiency for communities, but in ensuring that communities have access to transport, schools, community facilities and the necessary support infrastructure. It would be helpful if that aspect were flagged up in the Bill.
Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): I want briefly to support the amendment. The amendment brings us back to something that I mentioned earlier: the concern at the back of some minds that what is happening is all a numbers game that is about being determined to push through a certain number of houses, without regard to the other things that will make for serious, sensible, sustainable communities in the future, such as design, quality and sustainability. Some guidance from the Minister about how seriously he takes the issues that the hon. Lady has raised would be helpful.
Lembit Öpik: I support the amendment. It looks to me as if sustainability is missing entirely from clause 2 in word and in spirit. As far as I can see, there is no element of the amendment that is compromising to the Government. As the hon. Lady has pointed out, the Government have been clear about their support for a sustainability agenda throughout their work and specifically in housing. I hope that this will be one of those occasions when the Minister, after consideration, will be able to accept an amendment that evidently has cross-party support.
We have already made progress, as my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham has said and as has been recognised by the Sustainable Development Commission and other green NGOs. Green stakeholders have told us that the Department is critical to successful Government action on climate change—perhaps more than any other Department. However, as the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire has mentioned, sustainable development will and should be at the heart of what the agency does, and it is crucial that the Bill makes that clear.
The agency’s functions in relation to sustainable development are set out in clause 34, which provides that it
“may contribute to the achievement of sustainable development.”
However, I agree with the cross-party consensus that we need to go further. I should like to consider in more detail the suggestion that the agency has a stronger duty to sustainable development. I shall consider whether incorporation in the agency’s fundamental objects would be appropriate, and I will look at the duties placed on comparable bodies, such as regional development agencies, the Greater London Assembly and local authorities, which are required to provide sustainable community strategies.
I am sure the whole Committee recognises that it is important that we get the clause right. I am clear that we must not constrain the agency’s ability to deliver new homes, or leave it open to persistent legal challenges on matters such as its work on eco-towns and other initiatives that will help to achieve the 3 million homes target, which may require, frankly, the development of greenfield sites. If we were to place on the agency an unqualified duty, it would be almost impossible for the agency to achieve its targets. However, I hear and agree with what the Committee has said, and I shall consider the issue in more detail and return to it at a later stage.
Lembit Öpik: I shall be interested to hear what the hon. Member for City of Durham says in response to the Minister’s comments. I am encouraged by what the Minister has said, and I hope that it means that the Government will adopt the amendment on Report.
May I underline something that the Minister himself said about clause 34? In the clause, “may” is used, not “must”. We are in changing times, and if the Government are serious about the environmental agenda, it seems appropriate to enshrine that element in the objects of the agency that we are setting up. There would be no cost to the Government, but the provision would be directionally important.
Mr. Wright: I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s contribution. I have made my and the Government’s position clear, subject to the constraints that I have mentioned. To that end, I hope that my hon. Friend will withdraw her amendment, which we may consider later in the Bill’s proceedings.
Dr. Blackman-Woods: The Minister has given me supportive comments and assurances that he will consider the issue seriously. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Sir George Young: I beg to move amendment No. 14, in clause 2, page 1, line 14, at end insert ‘inclusive’.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 12, in clause 86, page 37, line 38, after ‘well-managed’, insert ‘, inclusive’.
Sir George Young: I hope that we are now on a winning streak, because when I moved an amendment this morning, the Government said that it was very worthy but that it added to a list, which was a powerful argument for rejecting it. The previous amendment added to a list, but after an obviously good lunch, the Minister decided that although it added to a list, it was none the less worth considering. Against that background, he will find it hard to resist amendment No. 14.
Alistair Burt: Does my right hon. Friend feel that the absence of the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich, who would have nipped the Minister’s ankles, led the Minister to make that concession?
Sir George Young: I was surprised that the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich tabled an amendment that added to a list, given what he said about my amendment this morning.
Returning to my amendment, if there is one theme running through the Government’s housing policy, it is social inclusion, which is one reason why they have introduced the Bill. Social inclusivity is a fundamental element of the Government’s homes and communities agenda. The amendment would not add to a list; it would simply add an adjective to an existing list. I hope the Minister agrees that we want to build inclusive communities, and I see no reason why he cannot smile on the amendment. To some extent, this debate overlaps with our first debate and with the previous debate about focusing not only on building but on building inclusive communities.
By an inclusive community, I mean something broader than accessible housing. I mean homes and infrastructure that are planned and delivered to empower disabled people and other groups to get out and about, which are the sort of communities that the hon. Member for City of Durham referred to in the debate on the previous amendment, when she said that such communities should be sustainable. It means accessible and integrated transport, ensuring that facilities are located in places that everyone can reach easily and cheaply and that people in sheltered and supported accommodation can play a full role in a properly mixed community.
The Disability Rights Commission has provided some invaluable guidance for planners and housing professionals on what it thinks should be factored into the planning of such communities. I hope that the Minister agrees that the amendment would take forward the Government’s agenda and put in the Bill one of the main objectives of their housing and community policy. On that basis, I hope that he will give me the same benign treatment that he recently bestowed on his Back-Bench colleague.
1.45 pm
Mr. Wright: I am afraid that I must disappoint the right hon. Gentleman—I have sobered up quickly from my good lunch. A theme that emerged this morning, along with year zero, was the list principle. The amendment is unnecessary, as it takes us back to that principle.
Amendment No. 14 refers to the HCA, which, as I said this morning, will already have the objective of improving the supply and quality of housing in England, with a view to meeting the needs of people living there. I suggest that that includes ensuring that housing of all tenures and types appropriate to the needs of the community is provided. By meeting the needs of the community, the agency will contribute to its inclusiveness. Similarly to what we discussed this morning, I would be reluctant for inclusiveness to be elevated above the community’s other needs. It should also be sustainable, to take into account what we discussed on amendment No. 75, and it should be mixed. Those needs and others are reflected in the requirement for the agency to meet the needs of the community.
Amendment No. 12 relates to clause 86(2), which sets out one of the regulator’s 10 fundamental objectives. We shall discuss part 2 of the Bill in subsequent sittings, but it is worth my briefly summarising objective 1, which is set out in clause 86. It requires the regulator
“to encourage and support a supply of well-managed social housing, of appropriate quality, sufficient to meet reasonable demands.”
The amendment would add the word “inclusive” after “well-managed”. The clause sets out the fundamental objectives of the regulator, which must perform its functions with a view to achieving them as far as possible. It will be for the regulator to balance its objectives in carrying out each of its functions, as it deems appropriate. The objectives are intended to provide a constraint on how it exercises its functions under part 2 of the Bill, for example by setting out the purposes for which it can act and matters that it must weigh up in deciding how to act.
The purpose of objective 1 is to ensure that the regulator is concerned with ensuring that adequate social housing is available to meet needs, and with the quality of the stock and housing management. It is expected to take a view about what is needed across the social housing sector and to perform its regulatory functions accordingly. Adding the word “inclusive” would not have any useful effect. Objective 1 already states that the regulator must support a supply of social housing sufficient to meet reasonable demand, which will include demand from older or disabled people, whom we discussed earlier. Social homes will also need to be of a quality appropriate to those using them.
In addition, both the agency and the regulator will operate under a duty of equality, as do all public bodies. We will table consequential amendments in due course to amend schedule 1A to the Race Relations Act 1976, to include the regulator and the HCA. The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, as amended by the Equality Act 2006, now contain a general duty that applies to all public authorities.
It was a joy to watch two Privy Councillors this morning jousting and duelling. It reminded me of the rumble in the jungle or the thriller in Manila. However, the amendment takes us back to the list principle, so I hope that the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire will withdraw it.
Sir George Young: I am a little disappointed by the Minister’s reply, because I thought that the list argument had died in the previous debate, but it has been exhumed and deployed against the amendment. I honestly cannot see what damage it would do to the Bill to state that the HCA’s objective should be to support the development of inclusive communities in England, rather than simply the development of communities. His argument is that if we were to include the word “inclusive”, we should refer also to “mixed” and “sustainable”, but he conceded the argument on “sustainable” a few moments ago, so he is in danger of contradicting himself.
I recognise, however, that the Government are not minded to make such a concession, although I thought that I was simply taking their agenda forward a stage. However, if they do not share my view, there is no point in my trying to help them any further. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
The Chairman: Order. Before we proceed, I want to say that I have always taken the view that hon. Members have a right to debate the detail of any clause, and that we can therefore have a stand part debate at the beginning or the end of consideration of a clause. On this occasion, however, having looked at the breadth and depth of the amendments tabled, I shall probably determine that a clause stand part debate is unnecessary. I am telling hon. Members that now in case they wish to raise any burning issues between now and then.
Grant Shapps: I beg to move amendment No. 1, in clause 2, page 1, line 15, at end insert—
‘(d) to facilitate the provision and supply of home ownership including, in particular, low cost home ownership through community land trusts.’.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: Amendment No. 32, in clause 2, page 1, line 15, at end insert—
‘(d) to facilitate the provision and supply of housing for low cost home ownership and low cost rental through community land trusts.’.
New clause 1—Definition of “Community land trust”
‘“Community land trust” means a non-profit organisation which is an industrial and provident society, a company limited by guarantee or other incorporated body whose governing instrument contains provisions to the following effect—
(a) the primary purpose of the organisation is to hold land and other assets in order to promote the social, economic and environmental sustainability of a specified local geographic community by providing or facilitating the provision of affordable or other sub-market housing or other community-based facilities and services,
(b) the organisation will not dispose of its land and other assets save in the furtherance of its objectives as set out in paragraph (a),
(c) the membership of the organisation is open to organisations which are located in or persons whose principal place of residence, work or business is located in the specified community the organisation is established to serve (although the organisation may have different classes of membership),
(d) over 50 per cent. of the governing body is elected by the members of the organisation,
(e) the organisation is accountable to the local community through annual reporting or otherwise, and is responsive to the local community’s needs and to representations made on its behalf, and
(f) it is an organisation established to help enable the community and those who live or work there to benefit from the land or other assets it holds.’.
Grant Shapps: I shall try to make this contribution relatively brief, because I believe that, on this matter, the Committee is in agreement. The idea of CLTs has been around for a while, and they have started to happen. I have heard this Minister and the Minister for Housing speak in favour of them, and we, too, back them. CLTs are useful vehicles for encouraging low-cost ownership and rental, and they can play an important role in enabling communities to retain the benefits of the value of land, which makes it much easier for the Government to achieve their stated objective of reviving low-cost housing. As I understand it, it is beyond debate that CLTs are a good idea.
So why are CLTs not moving as fast as we would like? Some pilots have been set up, and more are coming in down the line. However, from talking to those involved with CLTs, there appears to be some hesitation and lack of confidence, and a concern that policy changes and other factors might stop CLTs in their tracks. It seems that the HCA and this Bill present an excellent opportunity to make a positive difference to the future of CLTs. The most important thing, as with all Government policy, is to provide a sense of certainty that the provisions are here to stay and that those who invest in them, either financially or with their own confidence and backing, will see CLTs flourish in 10 or 20 years’ time, so the investment needs to be long term. The purpose of the new clause, and the easiest way in which to achieve that objective, is to provide a legal definition of what a CLT would actually do—no such definition exists at the moment. I very much hope that that will attract the Minister’s eye and support.
Once again, this is not a party political question, but a question of how we best manage land in the public interest. Given that the CLT agenda is very similar to what I believe to be the agency’s agenda, I hope that we can generate a conceptual partnership in which the CLTs regard the new agency as an ally. That will make it easier for local communities to manage land in a way that is in their best interests, rather than just in those of developers. Developers will not lose out, but their activities will be made indirectly accountable to the communities that, ultimately, their constructions will serve. I hope that the Minister and others will take a benign view of the hon. Gentleman’s sensible proposition.
Mr. Love: I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Gale. From experience of past Bills, I know that you will keep us on track during our sittings.
May I add to the cross-party consensus on the issue? Without adding much, I agree with almost all of what has been said so far and, without simply repeating it, I want to emphasise the importance of the provision being included in the Bill and the objectives. A primary function of the HCA is to provide affordable accommodation, and I think that it is recognised across the board that CLTs have a major part to play in providing that affordable accommodation.
As has been said, there are a number of pilots up and down the country. A lot of them are striving hard to get the idea off the ground and to show that it can work in practical terms, but they are meeting major institutional barriers of a number of sorts. Making the amendment to the Bill and including a definition of a CLT is important, and it is particularly important to state that the land is secured for the community, which is a principle within the definition.
At this point I should explain the difference between my amendment No. 32 and amendment No. 1. Simply, my amendment includes a commitment not only to low-cost home ownership, which is important, but to low-cost rented accommodation. I am simply trying to widen the narrow definition in amendment No. 1. That has got nothing to do with any worries about low-cost home ownership, which is incredibly important, but affordable rented accommodation is also important. The Minister will be only too well aware of the acute shortage of affordable rented accommodation not only in urban areas, such as my London constituency, but in many rural areas, where there is a problem for young families, who cannot afford to buy, even with the subsidised prices that may be available through community land trusts, but who can afford to rent, if more property were available. My amendment would enable that and two other things as well.
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Amendment No. 32, with its commitment to both home-ownership and rented accommodation and to inherently mixed communities and mixed tenure estates, will go a long way to achieving the Government’s ambition. I come back again to the rationale that community land trusts will be a major contributor to the objectives of the Homes and Communities Agency, and therefore should be in the objectives of that agency. I assume that the Minister is sympathetic, but if he is not minded to accept the amendment, I hope that he will give sympathetic consideration to the cross-party concerns that have been expressed, and will try to find a way to ensure that, through this Bill, we galvanise community land trusts to achieve what we all hope and know that they can achieve in terms of delivering the objectives of the agency.
Mr. Wright: I welcome the debate that we have had on these amendments, and on the issue of community land trusts. As I think my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing made clear in the oral evidence sessions in December, we are committed to community land trusts and think that they have real potential to help provide more affordable housing. In that regard, I hope that I can provide a further element of cross-party consensus. Community land trusts are an exciting model. As has already been said, we have 14 pilots under way—seven in rural areas and seven in urban areas—which are supported by the Housing Corporation. We are using these pilots to look in more detail at how to develop the community land trust models, and will follow the pilots with a great deal of interest.
I would point out that the Housing Corporation and English Partnerships already have the ability to support community land trusts within the existing framework. The Bill gives the HCA the power to support CLTs. I do not want to pre-empt what the agency will do when it is up and running, but I am sure that, where appropriate, the HCA will assist community land trusts as part of fulfilling its objects of improving the supply and quality of housing in England. However—this is a crucial point—we do not want to dictate to the agency the precise mechanism by which it delivers those objects. Singling out a vehicle such as community land trusts for the delivery of housing, regardless of the merits of that particular vehicle, must suggest that this is the preferred way to provide housing. I suggest that that is the wrong approach.
Similarly, I am a big fan of local housing companies, and I think that the agency may encourage them as well. However, I do not want to dictate the promotion of local housing companies in the Bill. To reiterate, I do not think that it is wise or necessary in this case to embed one particular mechanism in legislation, as circumstances differ and times change.
Mr. Love: The Minister will be aware from the pilots that there has been some concern that English Partnerships has not been as positive in the process as one would hope. Recognising that, can he give any reassurance that the HCA will not replicate that concern, but would be more sympathetic to the objectives of community land trusts?
Mr. Wright: As I have said, I am personally very interested in the manner in which the 14 pilots are operating. I want to see how they are working and how they can help to provide the new homes that we need. Crucially, as my hon. Friend said, I want to identify any barriers to their development that we can help unblock. I am also very interested in the role that the agency can play in moving forward with regard to community land trusts. I do see CLTs as a big part of what will happen in terms of the delivery of housing in the future. As such, I am hoping to meet with representatives of community land trusts next month to hear how they are operating on the ground, to listen at first hand to their concerns, and to try to unblock the barriers. I hope that that provides reassurance to my hon. Friend and others.
In summary, I do not want to box the agency into any particular model in the Bill. I hate this phrase, Mr. Gale, but we need to “future-proof” the agency as much as possible. Innovative new models will come forward and specifying individual models on the face of the Bill may compromise the agency’s ability to deliver. I hope that I have reassured the Committee that I am very keen to make sure that community land trusts prosper. I am going to take a personal interest by seeing them next month, but I hope, on that basis, that hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield will feel able to withdraw the amendment.
Grant Shapps: I hear everything that the Minister says. I am slightly surprised by the response, inasmuch as hon. Members on both sides of the Committee agree with community land trusts. The point that, I think, has not been addressed in the short debate is how community land trusts get off the ground. If they are to do that, they require the reassurance of some kind of framework, some kind of definition. That does not exist in the Bill. One can possibly accept the argument that it should not be written into the Bill in clause 2—as that might overplay CLTs in comparison to local housing companies or some other form of housing, but it is odd that CLTs are not given a little more prominence in the Bill. None the less, I am sympathetic to what the Minister said with regard to his personal interest in community land trusts.
I also heard, during the evidence sessions, the Minister for Housing talk about the 14 or so trials that are being set up. On the basis that the results of those trials are published—unlike the results of the £4 million trials into six home information pack areas, which have never been published by this Government— I would be pleased not to press the new clause. I seek an assurance that the results of the trials will be published and available to the public.
Mr. Wright: It somewhat surprises me that it has taken until 6 minutes past 2 in the second session of clause-by-clause consideration for the hon. Gentleman to mention HIPs. I though it would be something like 2 minutes past 9.
I hope that I have made the Government’s intentions and my personal intentions clear. This is something that we are very much interested in. We want to see community land trusts work and we want to make sure that any blockages to development are eliminated. To that effect, I am working on the matter and I will meet the trusts next month to see what we can do. I reiterate the point about defining CLTs in the Bill. I do not want to risk failing to future-proof the agency. I hope that the issue will be debated again on Report, but I hope that I have made the Government’s intentions clear and that the hon. Gentleman will be able to withdraw the amendment.
Grant Shapps: I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Alistair Burt: I beg to move amendment No. 62, in clause 2, page 1, line 15, at end insert—
‘(ca) to act, in cooperation with relevant local authorities, as the strategy, planning and delivery vehicle for the London Thames Gateway.
(cb) to promote the right to buy and social homebuy in the developments it undertakes or facilitates.’.
Thank you, Mr. Gale. I echo the warm welcome that has been given to you by others. Can I now slightly dent the atmosphere that has been built up, by talking about the Thames Gateway. Mr. Gale, you were not here this morning and therefore might be unaware of an exchange that took place. Much to our surprise, at 9.30 the Minister for Housing tabled a written statement on the very matters that we are talking about, including the decision by the Department for Communities and Local Government to transfer some powers relating to the Thames Gateway to the Homes and Communities Agency, which is the substance of the amendment.
I was slightly surprised that a decision on a matter that had been under consideration for some time in the Department was announced this morning, at a time that did not give us any chance to consider it before the Committee dealt with it this afternoon. I expressed myself in strong terms this morning. I said that the Committee should have an adjournment in order to deal with the matter. I do not blame the Minister. He was good enough to draw the Committee’s attention to the written statement. Part of the reason why I need to explain the amendment at some length, if I may, is the annoyance that the written statement was produced this morning. The statement is on a topic that the Government knew we were going to deal with. They certainly knew from the amendments that were tabled on Monday that the matter would be raised today.
There are two parts to the amendment—one part about the right to buy and social home-buy and the other on the Thames Gateway. I am interested in the Minister’s view on, and determination to promote, social ownership through social home-buy and the right to buy. I should like a word from him about the way in which he intends to tackle the issue through the Homes and Communities Agency. I do not want to linger on that because I want to talk about the Thames Gateway.
The amendment was designed substantially to give effect to a recommendation by the Public Accounts Committee, which published a report on the Thames Gateway on 15 November 2007, entitled “The Thames Gateway: Laying the Foundations”. It was not a complimentary report, but one suggestion that it made was that the Department’s responsibilities for the Thames Gateway be transferred to the new agency, partly because of what the agency was set up to do, and partly because of the Department’s abysmal record on handling the Thames Gateway.
I questioned the Minister for Housing about the issue when she appeared before this Committee on 13 December. I asked her:
“Do you would follow the recent recommendation of the Public Accounts Committee and give the Thames Gateway to the HCA to run?”
She said in response:
“We will confirm our views on precisely what will be covered by the HCA in time for you to have those debates in Committee.”——[Official Report, Housing and Regeneration Public Bill Committee, 13 December 2007; c. 120, Q191.]
The written statement giving the Department’s decision states that
“the Agency will take on housing and regeneration delivery functions from CLG”—
the Department for Communities and Local Government—
“in the Thames Gateway, including driving forward the implementation of the Thames Gateway Delivery Plan published in November.”
For the Minister for Housing to believe that by publishing the statement at half-past 9 this morning, she fulfils her commitment to the Committee on 13 December that we would know her views in time for us to have this debate, is wrong.
I make no criticism of the Minister before us, but the situation is not appropriate. There has not been any time for consultation on precisely what the statement means. We shall discuss it now, and I hope that he will have sufficient information to answer in detail precisely what the Homes and Communities Agency will take over, and precisely what will be left with the Department. There has not been any time for consultation with outside bodies either. Over lunch time, I contacted several local councils in the Thames Gateway area to ask whether they had been consulted about the decision, and the answer that I have so far from them is no. What happened between 13 December 2007 and now? Who was consulted before the decision was made? And why, during that process, was it not possible to give the Committee even 24 hours’ notice that the matter would be dealt with in this way, knowing that it would come up as one of the first amendments, right at the heart of the Bill?
I am disappointed, because I cannot see any political angle to the situation. It is either carelessness or a slight contempt, again, for the process of Parliament for the Department to feel that, with impunity, it can publish something when it wants, regardless of the fact that a Committee will be exploring it, saying, “Oh, it’s all right, it’s being produced in the morning, so they won’t bother and it won’t matter.” It does matter, and the Department could have done better.
That brief rant is over the top for me, as colleagues know, but having put it on the record, I shall now consider the background to the amendment and the reason why we support the transfer to the HCA but want to explore—this is what the amendment does—the role of local authorities and more of the detail.
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The original vision of Michael Heseltine to see the area to the east of London as a tremendous opportunity for growth and development has been bedevilled over the past decade by the structure of the organisation that was designed to give effect to that vision. Even Lord Rogers—a Government supporter—was led in his urban task force to contrast the way in which the gateway is being handled with London docklands under Michael Heseltine. The structure of the earlier project was much more tightly handled and delivered far better. In the case of the gateway, there have been too many bodies, too many funding streams, not enough leadership and accountability, and, by and large, a mess, which has prevented it from delivering on its immense potential.
Those complaints and concerns were there for some considerable time before the Public Accounts Committee—
Mr. Love: Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that we return to the days of development corporations, bypass local authorities and local communities and simply deliver, or is he suggesting an alternative model halfway between the corporations and what we have now?
Alistair Burt: I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s intervention. What we want to do through this amendment is, bearing in mind the announcement this morning, explore precisely what the Government currently have in mind. I do not think a return to a development corporation model is right, because the local authority involvement needs to be substantial. One of the problems has been the expression of their needs and desires and the swiftly changing nature of their economies, which is reflected in their plans and proposals for the gateway. That has not come through the existing structures. I take it that the existing structures have failed, which is why the announcement was made this morning. It would be nice to get an admission on that, and we are exploring what kind of structure there should be in our amendment.
Following a number of concerns raised by many different sources, the Public Accounts Committee had a chance to look at Thames Gateway, and its report was pretty damning. In dealing with this matter on Second Reading, the Minister for Housing tried to bluff by saying from a sedentary position that the report was not all that bad. Bearing in mind what we have been through today, I think we need to examine in more detail the PAC’s conclusions and recommendations.
The first conclusion was this:
“The Department’s management of the programme has been weak and has not demonstrably added value to the programme.”
That was the conclusion that led to its recommendation that the programme should go to the HCA to sit alongside the other housing growth programmes to utilise the agency’s housing and regeneration expertise—that is, to remove it from DCLG control.
This is a further conclusion:
“The Department has not translated the vision for the programme into comprehensive and measurable objectives, nor are there robust systems to measure progress.”
This is a third conclusion:
“The delivery chain for the Thames Gateway is unclear.”
Another conclusion states:
“The Department does not know how much the regeneration of the Thames Gateway will cost the taxpayer.”
A further conclusion states:
“Multiple inward investment agencies operating within the region and the lack of a co-ordinated marking strategy have led to poor visibility of the programme outside the area and amongst potential investors.”
I am not quite sure precisely what the DCLG has done in relation to Thames Gateway that gets a thumbs up and a tick, but there is not very much there, hence the interest and concern about whether this is the right thing for the Department to be carrying on.
Then there is the curious business about the sacking of the chief executive, Judith Armitt. Just before the Committee met on 13 December, news emerged rather slowly that the chief executive of Thames Gateway, appointed barely 12 months before by the Minister for Housing herself, was being removed. We had a little exchange about that in Committee, when I asked the Minister for Housing about progress at the gateway, and she gave the impression that the previous 12 months had produced extremely strong, beneficial changes—indeed, she waxed lyrical about them. I asked her why the chief executive was being sacked if things were so good, but she did not answer. She said:
“You will appreciate that it is not appropriate for me to comment on departmental staffing arrangements, which are a matter for the permanent secretary...Those are internal civil service staffing matters.”
I replied:
“I don’t think you will be able to get away with that for long, but thank you for your answer.”——[Official Report, Housing and Regeneration Public Bill Committee, 13 December 2007; c. 121, Q193.]
The Department cannot get away from that any longer. Why has the chief executive been removed? If progress at the gateway was poor in the previous 12 months, why did the Minister wax lyrical about it on 13 December? If it was good, why was the chief executive sacked? If it was to do with the proposed change to the HCA, why was that not stated at the time—it would have been a perfectly valid reason? If it was because of the change to the HCA, why were we not told about the intention to move departmental responsibilities to the agency before this morning? Frankly, the situation is a mess, and it looks as though there has been a straightforward scapegoating.
That is not the first problem with DCLG delivery. My hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield has made a lot of the HIPs issue, about which the Department has been criticised. There has been criticism about pathfinders and Thames Gateway, and in this case, the criticism seems to have been taken out on a chief executive, whose reputation has thus been sullied and affected, despite having been in post for barely more than a year. She seems to be carrying the can. I also checked with council leaders in the area, asking whether the performance of employees has been particularly poor, but they said, “No, we don’t think that’s the case; we think this is a scapegoating.”
The Minister may not be able to answer this, because it is personal stuff that relates to the Minister for Housing, but it is entirely pertinent to how the gateway is run and to whether the transfer of responsibilities to the HCA will produce anything better than what has been produced up to now. If it is not out of order for him to do so, will the Minister address the unfortunate removal of Judith Armitt ?
Where does the amendment leave us. It relates specifically to the involvement of local authorities, and it covers the point made by the hon. Member for Edmonton about the involvement of local authorities. Precisely what will be the responsibilities of the HCA in relation to the Department? What local authority involvement will there be? When looking at the problems of gateway delivery, we have picked up on a sense among authorities that they do not feel fully engaged and involved in the process. Things can move quickly on the ground in local economies, and sometimes local authorities know best where jobs should be created and where investments should be made. That has not been communicated well enough through the DCLG chain of command, or whatever there is of it. How will that be dealt with through the agency? For the agency to deliver effectively, we would like it to work in conjunction with local authorities.
The big question is the extent to which the agency’s handling of such matters will be different from what has happened up to now. There are some specific problems that I have been looking for the agency to deal with in a different manner. For example, there have been issues about the progress made by the DCLG when the Highways Agency is involved in decisions and where it uses its methodology in relation to congestion and to veto vital road connections. It works more or less as a bystander and not as a key part of the process. One would have thought that a Department handling such matters would make sure there was a degree of co-ordination, but that has not happened in relation to the Highways Agency. Will that problem be sorted by the new structure? Equally, the Environment Agency does not need to lecture the gateway on flood risk; it needs to be actively involved in ensuring there are improved defences and opportunities for creating space for development around water, rather than being on the sidelines making comments. To what extent will the HCA provide a better chance of the Environment Agency being brought into those decisions to make sure that more is done?
To what extent will the agency be able to ensure that there are fewer targets and less mess in terms of that part of the gateway? There have been too many targets. I arrived in Newham this lunch time—I have been out to the gateway and back—to be greeted by a headline in the Newham Recorder, which states, “Regeneration is dealt a blow”. That refers to a consortium pulling out of a £3 billion project, because it wants to concentrate on building the nearby 2012 Olympic village. That is not a disaster for the gateway as a whole, because the work will still be done, but a group that has been involved in a major project to develop Newham’s old docks area has pulled out at a late stage, because another target in the same gateway area has assumed greater importance, leading to a headline that will be disappointing for residents, for the Minister and for everyone else. To what extent will targets be revised and better handled through the new agency’s working?
To what extent will the new agency deal better with greening issues—greening the gateway is tremendously important? I am delighted by the greater involvement of Sir Terry Farrell, in an appointment announced in the autumn, because he is a first-rate man and has a clear grasp of the subject. I am interested in how greening will take place. Who will have responsibility? Will the greening issue be part of the Department’s responsibility, or will it be transferred to the HCA? Clearly, the integration of the greening of the area with the planning and delivery of housing is a key matter.
Lastly, do we have another leadership problem, because the agency will be involved alongside the DCLG, or will the agency have greater responsibility? Where will the Minister for Housing sit in all this? Those are my concerns—I could say more things, but I will not raise them now. My point is clear—the gateway structure has been poor. It seems to me that the Government have acknowledged that, and I think it would help if they were to say, “We got some of this wrong, which is why we are making the transfer. It has not all been marvellous.” If it has all been marvellous, why was the chief executive sacked? If it has not been marvellous, the Government should say so and explain the transfer to the agency. It may be a good development, but we need to know precisely what will be handled by whom, what the relationship with local authorities will be, and whether it will solve some of the practical, everyday problems that I have mentioned.
If we had had a week to consult people in the area about the impact of the Government’s decision, which was announced today and about which the Government must have known for a little while, I would have asked fewer questions and we would know more about it. I am sorry that the Minister has to deal with those balls being bowled at him, but following the release of the PAC report, we did not get a statement—oral or written—from the Department. We have not had a chance to question his colleague, the Minister for Housing, so it falls to him to explain how the matter might be handled and whether our solution of the HCA working with local authorities is the best bet. Alternatively, perhaps he will explain the structure, as it is going to work according to the Minister for Housing’s statement this morning.
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The Chairman: Order. Some hon. Members may feel that some of the remarks that I have allowed have not been entirely within the order and context of the amendment. My view, having said what I said earlier and not knowing that any of that was going to be said, is that they are in order within the context of the wider clause. I indicated that I was not going to permit a stand part debate, which remains my view more than ever, but I felt that it was only right to allow the hon. Gentleman to make his case. I have listened carefully to the arguments and been briefed on the exchanges that took place this morning. Mr. Benton ruled, quite properly, that it is the responsibility of the Secretary of the State and the Minister to determine when they release documents. However, I ask the Minister to say to the Secretary of State that it might have been helpful had the document been released earlier, if only because it might have made his task a little easier this afternoon and, perhaps, allowed us to make a little more progress.
Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Gale. I trust that my earlier declaration of interest during the evidence session still stands on the record, although I would like to correct something: I am a member of Tameside metropolitan borough council, not Thameside, which is something that prickles the leader of the council, particularly because we are in Greater Manchester and not Greater London.
I rise to discuss the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire. In particular, I want to discuss the right to buy and social homebuy, which are important. Like him, I am interested in what the Minister has to say. The Bill envisages many hundreds of thousands of new homes being built over several years totalling in the region of 3 million. Some of those homes will be to buy; some will be for social rent; and some will be shared equity. On Second Reading, lots of arguments were put forward by hon. Members, mainly on the Labour side, concerning the long waiting lists in our constituencies and the problems that have built up over a number of years. In some part, that has been because of the right-to-buy policy.
Right to buy is a popular, long-standing policy, and it was once floated by the Labour party, although it was not taken up. It was eventually taken up by the Thatcher Government and, at the time, it was vociferously opposed by Labour, but time moves on and we are where we are. The policy has led to a dramatic reduction in socially rented accommodation. The problem does not necessarily concern the right-to-buy policy on its own, because we have not replaced those socially rented houses that have been sold off, let alone increased the number to meet demand.
Like the hon. Gentleman, I am interested in the Minister’s response to that element of the amendment, and I hope that he will acknowledge that errors in allowing the social stock to diminish cannot be repeated. Although I accept that the right to buy is a popular policy and that it will continue, we must ensure that we build up socially rented accommodation, prevent the stock from diminishing and keep up with demand, so that we do not end up in the future in the situation that we are in now.
Mr. Wright: I welcome what the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire has said—he may be surprised by that. He called his speech a rant, but I would say that it was a passionate and reasoned argument. I disagree with a lot of it, if not all of it, but it was well contained and well produced, and I pay tribute to that.
Mr. Love: I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. Does he agree that it is somewhat curious that the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire failed to justify the second part of his amendment? I did not hear a cogent argument for the inclusion of the right to buy or social homebuy.
Mr. Wright: My hon. Friend has made a really good point. I will use the same approach as the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire and take the second amendment first. He dealt with the second amendment in three or four sentences in order to get to the party-political bashing of the Thames Gateway, but the right to buy and low-cost home ownership deserve better than that. I agree with my hon. Friends the Members for Edmonton and for Denton and Reddish, whose analysis is exactly right.
In the 20 years or so since the right-to-buy policy has been in place, councils have gradually diminished their housing stock, which they have not replaced. The measures in the Bill will help councils to step up to the plate much more, and they will ensure that there are greater incentives for councils to be part of social housing—I hope that everybody welcomes that. The constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish is very similar to mine—we need more houses and more social houses.
Having said that, it is important that a Labour Government are an ambitious and aspirational Government for the people of the country. Nine out of 10 people would like some sort of home ownership, and it is right and proper that the Government do all that they can to encourage that. One of the objectives of the HCA stated in the Bill is to improve the supply and quality of housing in England, with a view to meeting the needs of its people. That includes ensuring that housing of all tenures and types appropriate to meeting the needs of the community is provided. The HCA will promote the right to buy and social homebuy, where appropriate.
On a similar theme to that which I have advanced on other amendments, it would be inappropriate to dictate to the agency the precise mechanism by which it delivers on the face of the Bill. Regarding its objective to improve the quality and supply of housing in England, the agency, in partnership with others, will have the expertise to determine what is appropriate. It does not seem sensible to elevate the promotion of a particular tenure type over a general requirement to meet the needs of the community. It is not wise to promote particular schemes through legislation such as this, as circumstances differ and times change—I made a point about future-proofing on an earlier amendment. The legislation will need to be sufficiently flexible to work for the future as well as for today. However, I suggest that the tasking framework will examine the issue and move it forward on the part of the agency.
I spent some time over Christmas promoting a number of initiatives that the Government have advanced with regard to low-cost home ownership. One of those is that service personnel will be classified as key workers, which will boost their buying power in terms of getting a house. I hope that all members of the Committee welcome that. We will be debating on a later clause a means by which service personnel can be helped with regards to housing, and again I hope that that will be welcomed. What came out clearly on Second Reading, to me and other Ministers, was the argument made by hon. Members, and Government Members in particular, that housing is needed not only in London and the south-east, but across the country. To that end, we have extended key worker schemes to all regions to recognise the fact that affordability problems persist across the board. I return time and time again to the central point, which is that we need more homes. We need a variety of homes in order to promote choice as much as possible, which is what the Bill and the establishment of the HCA will help to achieve.
Regarding the Thames Gateway, we had a debate through points of order on the manner of the statement, and I think that the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire recognises my sincerity in trying to ensure that the House, and particularly the Committee, had sight of the statement as early as possible. I take on board what he has said, but I think it important to set the matter in context. The Thames Gateway has entered a new phase with the launch by the Prime Minister on 29 November of the Thames Gateway delivery plan. The plan sets out a clear and compelling long-term strategic direction for the gateway and for what the Government will do to provide the basis for private sector investment.
It is vital that the arrangements to deliver those commitments to 2016 and beyond are clear to stakeholders and investors. Listening to the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire, one could be forgiven for thinking that the agency is up and running now and that it will take responsibility for the Thames Gateway on Monday. That is clearly not the case, and there is a very clear road map for how the next phase of the Thames Gateway—the exciting delivery phase—will move forward in the medium term. As I have said, the Thames Gateway delivery plan sets out that clear direction for the coming years. Until April 2009, when the agency becomes established, the DCLG’s Thames Gateway executive will continue to be responsible for driving forward the commitments in the plan. Delivery arrangements will be further strengthened by the establishment of a new management board between the Thames Gateway executive, the three RDAs and the regional directors of the three Government offices.
Alistair Burt: I am slightly puzzled. There was a great fanfare at the Thames Gateway forum for the announcement of the delivery plan. Why was the HCA’s involvement not mentioned then, only a handful of working weeks ago? If this was the great plan and programme for the next few years, why has a new element been introduced just five or six weeks later? Was it known then? If so, why was it not announced? If not, why is such a significant delivery vehicle being introduced after the announcement of the great plan for the next 10 years?
Mr. Wright: There is no inconsistency; there is a very clear direction. It is clear that, in the broad sense that I mentioned this morning, communities and local government will set the strategy in the medium term in order to ensure that we have housing, growth, regeneration and sustainable development, and that different and appropriate delivery mechanisms are produced as close to the community as possible. We are going to do that with the establishment of the HCA, and it is entirely right and proper that Thames Gateway could be part of that. I think that the general direction was very clear. I do not want to put words into the hon. Gentleman’s mouth, but I suggest that the amendment was a probing one to make sure that we are going down that route. I know that events have moved on, but that was certainly the way things would have gone. It is clear that, the way things are moving, central Government are responsible for strategy, and various organisations —centrally, in this discussion, the HCA—are responsible for delivery.
Alistair Burt: I am grateful again for the Minister’s courtesy. We will know more about the allocation of functions as time goes on. I will press him a final time on the time scale and announcement in order to deal with the issue of courtesy to the House and to this Committee. It is clear from what the Minister said on 13 December that there had been some consideration of the matter. When was the decision made? If the decision was made some days ago, why were we not told earlier. It was a material matter for this Committee, which the Minister had promised we would be told about in time for the debate. If it was decided very late, that sounds very strange, bearing in mind what he has said. If it was decided some weeks ago, why were we not told earlier?
Mr. Wright: I have made my position quite clear: we were discussing the various functions of the agency, including the Thames Gateway. I tried to make sure that the Committee had sight of the relevant statements as soon as possible, and I hope the Committee acknowledges that.
Moving on, I think we are in a new, very exciting phase of delivery. We have had planning and pre-delivery, but I do not want anyone to think that Thames Gateway has been a failure. Before I was a Minister, I was a member of the Public Accounts Committee, and I absolutely loved being on it. I think that it is a fantastic Committee, but I have to say that I stand shoulder to shoulder with my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing in her analysis that the PAC conclusion is out of date. Let me reiterate and advance some of the arguments that my right hon. Friend made in discussions with the hon. Gentleman on 13 December.
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We have had real progress with the Thames Gateway. We have had the announcement that Crossrail will proceed through Canary Wharf and Woolwich to Stratford and from Woolwich and Abbey Wood, bringing with it £16 billion investment, opening up new employment opportunities and accelerating housing growth. We have had the completion of the High Speed 1 line, with Eurostar services from St. Pancras stopping at Ebbsfleet, thereby boosting the economic prospects for east London and north Kent still further. We have had planning permission for three substantial gateway projects: the London Gateway, which is a world-class deep-water port and business park; Eastern Quarry, which is a new residential community by Ebbsfleet station; and Barking Riverside, which has the largest residential planning permission ever. We have the opening of the acclaimed O2 concert venue and entertainment complex on the Greenwich peninsula, which had over 600,000 ticket sales in its first three months. I believe Led Zeppelin played there before Christmas and, slightly less interestingly to me, the Spice Girls have played there as well.
Alistair Burt: I bet you really are interested.
Mr. Wright: Well, of course I am. I have misled the Committee and I apologise. We have seen a huge amount of progress. I do not want to give the Committee the impression that it has been complete failure, because we have seen employment growth of 9 per cent. over 2001 to 2005, which is far faster than the national average. We have funded two new universities—at Southend and Medway—with nearly 5,000 higher and further education places so far to boost the skills of local people. We have procured high-speed domestic services, serving east London and north Kent. We have started construction of the extension to the docklands light railway and have secured doubling of the capacity. I could go on.
I want to give the impression that achievement has been made. It is right, proper and crucially timely that we move to the next phase. We have been entirely consistent in our approach and policy considerations that those responsibilities would move to the agency in the medium term and that the DCLG would set the strategy. I hope that, in the spirit in which I have tried to advance things, the amendments will be withdrawn.
Alistair Burt: As always, I appreciate the Minister’s style. We already have a good relationship, and I think that he is doing a sterling job. He will lay a good foundation for me in a couple of years’ time, and I wish him well. He has made a brave attempt, and I appreciate the spirit in which he has done it.
I will turn to Thames Gateway in a second, but on the hon. Member for Edmonton’s point, which was a good niggle, I want to say that we discussed housing tenure quite a bit in the oral evidence sessions. Housing tenure—both right to buy and social homebuy—is important. We commented that the Government’s efforts to encourage more people into shared ownership and the like have not been terribly successful, but they have been trying. We had a good discussion about that and, for reasons of brevity, I did not want to overplay that with the amendment, which is why I did not say a lot about it. However, the hon. Gentleman is right that the matter is important. Both the Minister and I have dealt with it relatively briefly, but that should not disguise its importance. I did my best in those discussions to indicate my concern about the home ownership issue and whether, as a nation, we are completely fixated on home ownership and whether we need to reconsider housing tenure as one of the answers to the future of housing supply. I stand by that point, which is important to me, and I am sure we will consider the matter further.
The Minister may not be able to answer the question why, if it has all been so good, the chief executive was sacked. If it was because of the change of direction and the HCA coming along in the manner that he described and that the Minister for Housing mentioned on 13 December, there was ample opportunity for the Minister for Housing to say that the next phase was going to be handled differently and that the chief executive was going, but she did not do so. As far as I am aware, the removal of Judith Armitt remains a mystery. There is therefore a cloud over the career of a very good chief executive, which is unfair, and I am not certain whether the matter has been clarified. That is an issue that should not be left, because it is unfair to her—and to the Department if there were a good reason for the change. We do not know, and we should.
In response to the Minister’s general remarks, I say that, “We are where we are,” which is one of the great political phrases in our lexicon—as good as, “I hear what you say.” Of course, we must find out about the detail, and I wish the Thames Gateway well. We know that there have been successes, but people do not feel that the potential has been realised in the manner in which it might have been. My sense is that the Government have recognised that in their direction of travel, but that they find it difficult to say, “We got it wrong.” To that extent, it is good news.
We are still interested in how the local government aspect will be handled and want to ensure that local authorities feel more involved with the new structure than they did with the old, which we will test out in times to come. However, I do not think that anything will be gained from pressing the amendment, because the Government have already conceded the major point in their announcement this morning. The hon. Member for West Ham and I have struck up two wins in this session already, which is sufficient for me.
Mr. Wright: I think that we are establishing an unhealthy, bipartisan relationship. The hon. Gentleman is more than welcome to cross the Floor.
I would like to put on the record a very serious matter concerning the chief executive. The hon. Gentleman is aware that I cannot comment on the circumstances surrounding the chief executive. Judith Armitt is still an employee of the DCLG. These are internal civil service matters, and he knows that, owing to the personal circumstances, it would be wrong for me to comment.
Alistair Burt: I fully accept what the Minister has said. However, this issue probably still needs to be cleared up, because of the uncertainty in the public mind. Until it is cleared up, difficulties will remain.
With that, I think that we have run around the issues quite a bit. We wish the gateway well and look forward to its further progress. I shall be very interested to see how the agency sets about the new structures, and I am looking forward to engaging with it. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
The Chairman: It will not have escaped the attention of the Committee that I allowed some leeway in the discussion of the former chief executive, which might seem slightly harsh in view of the fierceness with which I stamped on the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich. However, I now rule that no further discussion of this issue will be permitted, and my view will be made plain to Mr. Benton. It is a matter for others.
Sir George Young: I beg to move amendment No. 16, in clause 2, page 2, line 1, at end insert—
‘(1A) In assessing the needs of people living in England in accordance with subsection (1), the HCA shall take particular account of the changing age profile of the population.’.
We come to the last of the amendments to clause 2. It has been tabled by an Opposition Back-Bench Member and therefore has a fairly short life expectancy. To some extent, the debate on this amendment has been reflected in some of our earlier debates on the assessment of need and on the one that I initiated on disabled people.
The amendment has the support of Help the Aged and Age Concern. Listening to the debates this morning, and to those on the Bill as a whole, I am slightly concerned that the 3 million new homes are targeted at families and key workers, because there is the risk that the needs of the elderly will be squeezed out. For example, the regional spatial strategies published by the Government do not mention age as one of the factors that need to be taken into account. Will the Minister provide some reassurances and answer some questions? When is the Government’s national strategy for housing in an ageing society due to be published—I think that it is some time this month. It would be helpful if we could be given some information on that.
Furthermore, can he bring us up to date on the work of his Department’s housing and older people development group—it is known as HOPDEV—which is a committee driving forward the agenda for housing in an ageing society? My concern is that, given the very large increase in numbers of older households over the next 20 years, there is a risk that those needs will not be taken into account unless some reference is made to them in the Bill. I concede that we are discussing a probing amendment rather than one that has a high expectation of reaching the statute book, but there is a need to reassure elderly people that, as this agenda is driven forward and money is put into housing, the needs of the more elderly people in the population are properly taken into account and that they are not neglected as this agenda is driven forward.
Andrew George: I rise primarily in support of lists, because lists in this inclusive age are not necessarily exclusive. On that basis, the fact that a Bill may include a prompt to an agency that they must have consideration for an ageing population does not necessarily mean that it excludes the possibility of that agency considering other matters as well. In any case, in support of this issue there is a matter which the HCA should consider in its future plans—the matter of preparing itself for adaptations and, in its design guidelines for new developments, making sure that there is the capacity to adapt the design of properties or particular neighbourhoods to take account of an ageing population.
Another matter which arose, as it perpetually does, in the evidence sessions, was that of older people, particularly older single people, living in large family houses, and of there being insufficient incentives within the system to enable or even encourage them to move, releasing the family house and living in appropriate—very comfortable—accommodation. There are, therefore, very strong arguments for considering the issue and for its being part of the HCA’s objectives.
I support the right hon. Gentleman in hoping that the Government will not share the view, which the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich seemed to take in an earlier intervention, that simply creating one additional item on a list by implication denigrates or excludes other matters which are therefore not included on that list. I hope the Minister will take that into account generally, but specifically on this issue.
The social exclusion unit report, “A Sure Start to Late Life: Ending Inequalities for Older People”, identified a number of key issues in relation to housing and support services for older people, such as access to information, housing options, joining up support services and maintenance and repair. We have started to address those issues through technical consultation, and we will continue to work with stakeholders to ensure that the final, updated technical guidance included in the CSH technical manual is appropriate and achievable. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned two direct questions: one about the national strategy for housing in an ageing society, and one about the strategy advisory group, the housing and older people development group.
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I do not want to box in my noble Friend Baroness Andrews, who is leading on that issue in the Department, but the strong expectation—I discussed it with her on Monday—is that both things will be published imminently, certainly by February. I hope that that does not box her in too much and that it reassures the right hon. Gentleman. On the basis of that and the fact that he knows that I do not particularly agree with the list principle, I hope that he will withdraw the amendment.
Sir George Young: I am grateful to the Minister for his reply. He sugared the pill as best he could. I recognise that the Government will not accept the amendment and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment , by leave, withdrawn.
The Chairman, being of the opinion that the principle of the clauses and any matters arising thereon had been adequately discussed in the course of the debate on the amendment proposed thereto, forthwith put the Question, pursuant to Standing Orders Nos. 68 and 89, That the clause stand part of the Bill:—
Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause s 3 and 4 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Mr. Iain Wright: I was trying to catch your eye, Mr. Gale.
The Chairman: It is too late. It always breaks the civil servants’ hearts when I deny the Minister the opportunity to read the brief.
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