Housing and Regeneration Bill

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Clause 6

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
3.30 pm
Alistair Burt: The debate provides for a short comment from myself and an opportunity for the Minister to give us some sense of how regeneration powers are going to be used. I shall bring to the Committee’s attention some of the briefings that we have had from outside bodies that are concerned that the housing element will dominate the regeneration element of the new agency and worried that, in the pursuit of targets and numbers, other things may be lost. I will mention two or three of those things.
The British Urban Regeneration Association does great work, and I am sure that it is already known to the Minister. It has a particular concern. It says:
Perhaps I could flesh this out a bit. In my own work in regeneration, both in the past with city challenge and more recently in my current role, I have been concerned—as I am sure the Minister and the whole Committee are—with the problem that endemic poverty and difficulties in some of our poorest estates are not necessarily relieved simply by changing the physical infrastructure. Yes, one can create bright, new houses, but a number of the people who have been in the most impoverished housing have all sorts of issues—typically, relationship breakdown, addiction, problems with children, poor educational achievement, low aspiration and a sense of hopelessness. Merely moving them out, reconstructing the housing and moving them back in again will not solve those problems.
I have looked at the work done by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith). His work with the Centre for Social Justice has looked at breakdown issues and to what extent some of the things revealed can be tackled through existing regeneration projects. One does not have to accept everything that my right hon. Friend has put forward in his analysis of “Breakdown Britain” and “Breakthrough Britain” to recognise that objective evidence of a series of problems suggests that physical regeneration is not sufficient.
I wanted to task the Minister with the issue raised by BURA. What can he tell us about the clause 6 powers for regeneration being taken in the broadest sense, rather than in the narrowest sense of powers purely for land assembly and dealing with the physical aspects of regeneration? Will the Homes and Communities Agency be able to work in an integrated manner with other—social and community—aspects of regeneration or are the powers and objectives of the agency solely confined to physical regeneration? In the latter case, we would have to look for other mechanisms to work with the agency to tackle the problems that I have just mentioned. BURA is interested in that and thinks that if the agency is not going to do that, it would be a missed opportunity. I am sure that the Minister would not want to miss that opportunity.
Mr. Love: The hon. Gentleman has touched on an incredibly important point. All the evidence on urban regeneration projects for the last 40 years has been that physical regeneration by itself will almost inevitably fail. Does he accept that one of the best ways to intervene to reduce the level of what is called “residualisation” on some estates, is to provide new housing whereby people can be moved physically from those estates to create a more rounded community, thereby helping in the very way that he is talking about?
The point that the hon. Gentleman made at the beginning of his intervention is important. More and more we are coming to realise that it is the combination of the two things we have discussed that is crucial. Outside bodies, who wanted us to scrutinise the creation of the agency in the manner to which I referred at the start of the sitting, expressed some worry, but that is not to deny that it could work very well. However, to ensure that it concentrates on the right thing it must bring together, within its existing terms and objectives, personal and social regeneration and physical regeneration
The second matter arises from one or two different sources. Again, we are not the only ones who worry about the agency pursuing targets and the numbers game being paramount. The brief from the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors states:
“It is essential that a strong commitment to regeneration is retained by the new ‘superquango’. The RICS has concerns that the regeneration aspects of the new body could be lost in the Government’s push to increase house building levels significantly.”
In its submission to the Committee, the Federation of Master Builders, said:
“Genuine concerns about unmet housing needs and house price inflation have meant that the emphasis is on housing numbers. Whilst we acknowledge the need to provide more homes there is also a risk of a return to the numbers game which characterised housing policy in the 1950s and the 1960s.”
My third and final point on the clause is that the federation also raises the interesting matter of how much the new agency will be able to get involved in improving the quality of existing housing, so that the answers to our housing policy are based not just on the provision of new homes. There is no doubt that new homes are needed, but there is still the opportunity to do more with existing homes and existing areas and the federation’s submission talks a lot about that. It says:
“Existing neighbourhoods, villages and towns can solve the housing crisis by offering an estimated 18 million family sized homes, empty and underused buildings, ready infrastructure and other small underused spaces that have the capacity to meet the Government’s projected housing need.”
I am interested in the answers to three questions: first, how will the new agency ensure that social and physical regeneration are handled together? Secondly, how can the Minister further reassure the Committee and the outside bodies that made representations that it is not just a numbers game? Thirdly, to what extent will the agency also be charged with the need to regenerate existing neighbourhoods and communities without new build but with existing properties, using regeneration in that sense?
The Chairman: I am probably about to make a rod for my own back, but the hon. Gentleman referred to infrastructure. As the provisions of clauses 6 and 7 are closely inter-related, if hon. Members wish to refer to either or both, and to take both stand part debates together, I shall not be too concerned.
Andrew George: The circumstances have changed with your ruling, Mr. Gale. Both the clauses deal with regeneration and infrastructure. During the evidence sessions in December I was, as the Minister knows, seeking evidence in the Bill that the important role played for many years by English Partnerships would be taken forward in this new agency. The role simply was not sufficiently spelt out. As the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire said, there are concerns that the motivation behind this is to achieve a numbers gain for the Government with regard strictly to housing. There is a fear that, irrespective of comments about physical infrastructure, the workshop development role of English Partnerships and its other roles in employment and economic regeneration will be subordinated by this Bill. Reading clauses 6 and 7, my fear is that this remains the case. The objectives described in clauses 6 and 7 are sufficiently vague not to reassure me that those aspects will be covered.
I wanted to make a brief contribution at this point, given that I will also raise the matter when I move amendment No. 36 to clause 54. I am concerned that the role that English Partnerships currently plays might not be carried forward in the Bill as presently drafted.
Mr. Wright: Thank you, Mr. Gale, for that ruling, which I think is important and shows the very close synthesis between the two clauses. Clause 6 sets out the power of the HCA to regenerate or develop land, to bring about the more effective use of land, and to facilitate the regeneration or development of land or the more effective use of land. Clause 7—which I think is one of the most important clauses in part 1 of the Bill—enables the HCA to provide, or facilitate the provision of, infrastructure.
We have had an interesting but brief debate on this, and I want to point out that the definition of infrastructure here is the same as that used in clause 2; that is, it includes utilities such as gas or water, and retail or other business facilities. I expected to be criticised because the term “infrastructure” was too wide, and so I am pleased that we have not gone down that route. Indeed, the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire has provided some welcome and thought-provoking suggestions.
As I said earlier, a key object of the HCA is to regenerate communities and support their well-being. We cannot do this simply by providing the bricks and mortar of housing. Hon. Members may recall my saying during the oral evidence session—under threat from my boss, the Minister for Housing, my right hon. Friend the Member for Pontefract and Castleford—that if we simply plonk 3 million homes in a field in the middle of nowhere, we will not have done our job. We need sustainable communities that are inclusive, and that also have good, sustained economic bases.
Sir George Young rose—
Mr. Wright: Ah. [Laughter.]
Sir George Young: In which case, why did he reject my amendment?
I have seen this in practice. English Partnerships has pre-funded the southern section of the Bedford western bypass, the A41, which has opened up to the south-west of Bedford two major development areas to which 2,250 homes have been allocated. That is exactly the sort of thing that I imagine the agency doing.
3.45 pm
To complement the provision of traditional transport infrastructure, English Partnerships has also been involved in the provision of more community-focused facilities, such as schools and health care facilities.
Alistair Burt: Will the Minister use his best endeavours to encourage English Partnerships to work with Bedford borough council to complete the north-western section of the same bypass by using the same skills and facilities? It goes through my constituency and it would be a real help if the job could be done.
Mr. Wright: Yes, I shall move swiftly on, Mr. Gale.
The broad definition of infrastructure is very important and quite deliberate. It would be unusual but not impossible for the agency to provide schools and health care facilities to attract and ensure development. English Partnerships has already built 11 schools, one of which, in the Greenwich millennium village, is a primary school with an integrated health centre. Both were operational within weeks of the first residents moving into the village. Again, that is the sort of joined-up thinking that the agency will be able to bring—the skills that are necessary to provide sustainable communities that can really make a difference to the quality of life in our country. It is exactly what I want to see.
The hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire made a few important points about the comments from the British Urban Regeneration Association. I fully appreciate the fact that the issue is not just about physical regeneration, and that is why the objects of the agency include the continued well-being of communities. That is important, and it is why the definition of infrastructure in clause 7 is broad.
I shall draw the Committee’s attention to clause 33. I do not want to incur your wrath, Mr. Gale, but the clause relates to community service facilities and says that the agency may
“encourage or develop existing or new businesses; provide employment...provide safe and attractive environments; prevent or reduce anti-social behaviour or crime...provide transport services, health services, social, religious or recreational services, or cremation or burial services”.
There are powers already in the Bill to ensure that we can help to produce a well-planned and sustainable community, moving this country forward and regenerating the communities that live in it.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 6 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 7 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 8

Powers to deal with land etc.
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Sir George Young: The clause gives the HCA powers to manage and repair housing. I shall return to the point that we discussed briefly in an earlier debate, as we are about to confer those powers on the HCA. I must tell the Minister that if the HCA is going to be not only the provider of resources to housing associations but a potential competitor with them for such development, it will change the whole relationship between the HCA and the housing association movement.
In response to the earlier debate, the Minister said—I hope that I am quoting him correctly—that it would not be a prime objective of the HCA to provide housing. I am not sure whether it should be any objective—prime, secondary or at all. Then, under pressure, he described a scenario in which the HCA might have to intervene, but I was not wholly convinced, and it does not deal with the powers in clause 8. Is it really true that the HCA will manage and repair housing when we have the most well-developed and efficient housing association movement of probably any country in the world?
Clause 35 specifically relates to the HCA acquiring, constructing and converting buildings into such accommodation. The Minister needs to make it clear exactly what the role of the HCA is. Will it be in the business of developing, constructing, managing and repairing, or are those powers only to be used as a last-ditch emergency when all else has failed? If he does see the HCA as a developer, provider and landlord, that gives a totally different complexion to the whole debate about the role of the HCA.
I hope that in replying to clause 8 stand part, the Minister can go a little further than just say that it is not a prime objective of the HCA to provide housing, and make it absolutely clear that the local housing associations will do that, apart from in some exceptional circumstances which he is about to describe.
Mr. Wright: I think I am getting older and my knees are not what they were. In order to catch your eye quickly, Mr. Gale, I may need to have a knee replacement operation soon. However, I shall do my best to be quick. [ Interruption . ] I was going to say that perhaps the HCA could provide that.
Let me try to reassure the right hon. Gentleman and clarify what the agency will actually do in respect of housing and regeneration. I expect that it will do several things. It will help local authorities to develop expertise, so that they have the concentration of skills that will allow them to step up to the plate to ensure that they can deliver what is necessary. It will be in a position to lever in private sector finance and to take a strategic view of how and on which sites national needs will be best met. It will acquire land and remediate it to the point at which it becomes viable for a developer to take on further development of it. It will be able to determine what needs to be done on the ground to encourage private sector investment, and to facilitate the appropriate action for providing infrastructure.
However, where the circumstances demand, the agency will be able to take a direct role if it so wishes. Forgive me for using the same language, Mr. Gale—I know that this might not reassure the right hon. Gentleman—but the main thing will be to work in conjunction with local authorities, housing associations and others to bring forward the objects of the agency, rather than to do the work directly itself. However, the option is there should it so wish.
I do not think that I have convinced the right hon. Gentleman, but, to move on to a wider point, clause 8 is about how the HCA can work with land, including buildings. The clause also gives the agency power to reclaim land, which is something that English Partnerships has actively undertaken with a great deal of success. Due to the range of activities that the agency can undertake in respect of land, housing, plant and machinery—for example, acquiring, improving, managing or disposing—it will be able to adopt an innovative approach to delivery.
Those powers will give the agency the best incentive to make the best use of the assets that it acquires, and there is a range of models to help it do that. In order for the agency to fulfil its objects of improving housing stock and regenerating or renewing areas in England, it will need all of those powers.
Sir George Young: Mr. Gale, we may have an opportunity on clause 35 to go into this matter in more detail, but I have to say that I do not think that such activities should be an option for the HCA. There might be work that it has to do if there is simply no other agency, but we will need to return later in the Bill to its role. I hope that between now and then the Minister will be able to go back to base and see whether he can go a little further than he has been able to go today towards reassuring the Committee and me about the role of the HCA.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 8 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Further consideration adjourned.—[Liz Blackman.]
Adjourned accordingly at six minutes to Four o’clock till Tuesday 15 January at half-past Ten o’clock.
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