Housing and Regeneration Bill

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Clause 15

Adoption of private streets
Lembit Öpik: I beg to move amendment No. 99, in clause 15, page 7, line 30, at end insert—
‘(8) any resident of a private street may submit a request to the HCA for the adoption of that street.’.
I have tabled the amendment with my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives, who is on his way. He is also preparing for Government, as we speak. The clause is about the adoption of private streets. It is quite comprehensive in the outline of the requirements for the HCA in that regard, but one thing seems to be missing. There does not seem to be an explicit provision to enable any resident of a private street to submit a request to the HCA for the adoption of that street.
The amendment is born out of a recent experience I had in my own constituency, where the residents of a street in the town of Caersws were desperate for it to be adopted. There was a very strong case for it, but I do not need to go into the details. I had the greatest difficulty convincing the local authority that it was a good idea.
The clause, with the amendment, provides the opportunity of a formal avenue for residents to pursue in order to have their street adopted. Unfortunately for the people of Caersws, the legislation applies only to England, so it is an act of altruism on my part. Should the Minister accept the amendment, I shall seek to lobby the Welsh Assembly to introduce something similar. I hope that the Minister will give a considered response to the logic behind it.
Dr. Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab): I have some sympathy with the point that the hon. Gentleman was making. However, I suspect that going from the current situation, in which it is almost impossible to get unadopted roads adopted, to one where residents can simply request that they are adopted and it is done, is too much distance to travel in one Bill.
The Minister will know that, in constituencies such as mine, where there is a huge legacy of houses being bought from commercial quota but streets not being adopted, there is a problem of unadopted roads. I am glad to see the provisions in the clause, even though the circumstances are limited. Any provisions that allow some unadopted streets to be adopted is a move in the right direction. Will he confirm that it is the HCA’s responsibility to identify such streets and to ensure that they are adopted by the relevant street works authority?
Mr. Wright: I will take my hon. Friend’s point first, which is an interesting one. My constituency is relatively close to the City of Durham, which is in a beautiful part of the world. I would like to pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the work that she is doing with regard to affordable housing, often against the wishes of the local authority. I think that she has her finger on the pulse in terms of what her local constituents want, rather more than the local authority has, whose political complexion I cannot quite remember at the moment.
Mr. Syms: I can tell the Minister.
Mr. Wright: I thank the hon. Gentleman.
My hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham raises an interesting point. I have a number of ministerial hats. I have responsibility within the Department for coalfields regeneration. I also have senior responsibility for the housing market renewal areas.
I was in Stoke recently with that hat on, where, in relation to development in the housing market renewal pathfinder area, people were talking about difficulties that they were having with regard to the former National Coal Board. I think that I, and ministerial colleagues in the Department for Transport, need to look into that matter, because a common pattern seems to be emerging on former coal sites—whether they need to be adopted and what the agency could do in that regard. I shall be happy to report back to my hon. Friend, who I thank for raising the point, because it has clicked into place for me other pieces of the jigsaw, for which I am grateful.
The amendment is unnecessary, because there is nothing now to prevent residents of a street asking the highways authority to adopt their street, whether they ask directly, or ask the Homes and Communities Agency to intercede on their behalf. However, I suggest that stating in the Bill that they may submit such requests to the agency would probably—the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire might counter this—raise an unrealistic expectation that the agency will act on their request and serve an adoption notice on the street works authority. Furthermore, it could increase the risk that the agency could be seen as an unofficial appeals process when a street works authority refuses the residents’ request. That is not the purpose of the clause, and nor do I think that it is the purpose of the amendment. The clause is intended to ensure that the investment by the Homes and Communities Agency to improve highways can be properly maintained by the appropriate highways authority. I therefore invite him to withdraw his amendment.
Lembit Öpik: I was the victim of the Minister’s harsh tongue earlier on, and if I may be forgiven for saying so, I regarded his response as intransigent rubbish—I feel a lot better for having said that. He said that having a formal avenue of application for residents might create an unrealistic expectation, yet every year the Budget statement creates an unrealistic expectation, and now, with the pre-Budget statement, we have two unrealistic expectations about the economy. But they are aspirational, and so is my amendment. It would mean that a member of the public—let us remember that we are doing this for the public—can see explicitly that he or she has the right to make an application to the HCA.
At the moment, under the clause, the HCA would be entitled to say to a resident, “I am afraid that we have no provision to allow you, as a member of the public, to make a formal application for adoption.” I understand that Ministers are always loth to modify any Bill on the basis of Opposition amendments, but given that we have already passed a number of Government amendments, the Minister should acknowledge that the Bill is not perfect. I am willing to withdraw the amendment on one condition: that he will, at some point in the next week, have an informal meeting with me, so that I can put my case and allow him to see the logic of my proposal, which is not party political, but common sense. If he can assure me that we will at least have that conversation, I shall withdraw the amendment—but I cannot sit down until he either intervenes, or I push the amendment to a vote.
Mr. Wright: I might go down the Hillary Clinton route and say, “I feel deeply hurt by the harsh tongue in the hon. Gentleman’s head”. It is not something that I would expect from him.
I am happy to meet with the hon. Gentleman in the next couple of days to discuss the matter. However, the point about unrealistic expectations is fixed in my mind, and he will need to be very convincing, if he is to persuade me to alter that and to introduce or accept amendments on Report. However, I am more than willing to meet with him—in fact, I desire to meet with him. I should add, given that we are talking about unrealistic expectations, that, as a Liberal Democrat, he should expect nothing less.
Lembit Öpik: I am grateful to the Minister for agreeing to meet with me. He might have an iron first, but at least he is extending a velvet glove. We are a very broad church, with a large tent, and I hope that we can have a serious discussion. There is merit in my proposal, and I shall present to him a range of concerns about creating unrealistic expectations. However, his is a useful offer, for which I am grateful. On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 15 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clauses 16 to 18 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 19

Power to enter and survey land
Alistair Burt: I beg to move amendment No. 64, in clause 19, page 9, line 18, after ‘time’, insert
‘on notice as required in subsection (2)(b) below.’.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 65, in clause 19, page 9, line 21, after ‘acquire’, insert ‘compulsorily’.
5 pm
Alistair Burt: These short amendments deal with the power to enter and survey land. Amendment No. 64 would provide a period of notice for people who may be expected to accept somebody from the Homes and Communities Agency coming on to their land to survey it or to represent the HCA. The other amendment is designed to protect those who may be subject to the powers being applied to them by officers from the HCA. These probing amendments are intended to elicit from the Minister some guidance on how these powers should be used.
The Minister will probably be aware that for a lengthy period, national periodicals such as The Mail on Sunday and other newspapers have run a series of stories concerned with inspectors’ powers to enter people’s property for various purposes, whether to follow up council tax demands, assess the size of houses, photograph bedrooms, toilets and so on, or to support claims being made by the customs and valuation authorities, all of which come from guidance issued by the Government that is available for people to read, and all of which have been rejected by the Government as scare stories, saying, “There is no truth in those things; they will never happen.” However, they have not been able to give a satisfactory explanation of why such wide-ranging powers have been given to officers. We are following up on the same lines today.
We have mentioned on a number of occasions that the agency is not simply a result of the happy merger of English Partnerships and the Housing Corporation: the combination of the two gives considerable powers to the new agency. The potential for conflict of interest for those who acquire, develop and sell on can be considerable. In each area of the agency’s work, there should be a belt-and-braces approach to ensure that the public are not being traduced in any way and that the powers will be used with the greatest sensitivity, whether they relate to inquiry proposals, to the matters we discussed this morning regarding easements for right of way, or whether they apply to the considerable powers given by the Government to those in authority to go on to other people’s property and do various things. There is a need to ensure that we have some idea, through guidance from the Minister, about how these powers are to be used. That is most important.
Amendment No. 66, the Minister will note, would remove the power of the criminal law to be used in relation to an individual who may not know why someone came on to their land if notice had not been given, and who objects to that individual. To invoke the criminal law in those circumstances might be to use a sledgehammer to crack a nut. I ask the Minister to think again about that.
That is the background to the amendments and our concerns. I am sure that the Minister will agree that he does not want to see any more stories in the national papers saying, “Why are this draconian Government taking so many heavy powers to crack down on the everyday citizen?” Here is a chance for him to respond and explain and, by amending the Bill, to give an opportunity for such stories relating to these powers not to appear.
Mr. Wright: The hon. Gentleman was extremely helpful. He expressed the amendments in a characteristically thoughtful and sensitive manner, which helped me to sense where his main concerns lie. However, he may have overlooked the proper statutory context of the power.
Clause 19 sets out a power that relates to the process of acquiring land under clause 9, whether those purchases are made by agreement or in exercise of the agency’s compulsory purchase powers. The hon. Gentleman I think recognises that the clause has a strictly practical purpose. Yes, it allows an authorised person to enter a person’s land, but the wording makes it clear that the power arises only in connection with a proposal by the agency to acquire land.
There are only two reasons for which the agency is empowered to enter a person’s land—first, to carry out a survey; and secondly, to value land to assess the amount of compensation to be paid. The clause also authorises entry on to someone’s land in connection with a proposal by the agency to acquire some other person’s land, but that is simply a practical point. It may be necessary for a surveyor to assess a party wall or to access land. Soil surveys will be essential if accurate valuations of contaminated land are to be made, and the hon. Gentleman will be aware that clean-up costs can vary depending on what substances are found.
The amendments seek to limit a necessary power, and I shall respond to each in turn. In general, however, I assure the hon. Gentleman that the power simply enables those same procedural elements that take place in every normal private sale to take place in the statutory context.
Alistair Burt: I am slightly afraid to ask, but are the powers modelled on any other powers, so that we can compare and contrast them—or does the Minister need some inspiration on the question?
Mr. Wright: No, I am already inspired. The provision is similar to section 163 of the 1993 Act and is modelled on provisions similar to those found in Acts governing the regional development agencies and urban development corporations.
I turn to amendment No. 64. Subsections (1) and (2) of clause 19 operate together and mean that at least 28 days’ notice is required before an authorised person can demand entry on to land for the purpose of surveying it or estimating its value. Taking the clause as a whole, it is clear that subsection (1) is to be read in the light of subsection (2). I therefore suggest that it is unnecessary to repeat in subsection (1) the notice requirement provided in subsection (2). In that respect, I invite the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire to withdraw the amendment.
However, I take this opportunity to tell the Committee that we are considering whether the drafting of clause 19 makes it sufficiently clear that the notice requirements apply in all cases of intended entry. As I said a moment ago, we are clear that subsections (1) and (2) are to be read together, so that notice must be given before an authorised person can enter the land. That is our firm intention, even when land is not occupied in the conventional sense of the word, as referred to at line 26, clause 19(2)(b). We will therefore be considering whether the drafting requires clarification.
Amendment No. 65 would restrict the land that could be entered and surveyed or valued to that which the HCA is proposing to acquire compulsorily. However, it is also necessary for the agency to be able to enter land for surveying or valuation purposes even when the sale is by agreement. In many cases, if land is acquired by agreement the landowner is a willing seller, and I presume that he would be content to allow an authorised person entry on to the land in connection with the sale. The situation is similar to a survey of one’s house, whether it is to survey the property or to value the land. In such cases, I suggest that the agency would not need to enforce its right to enter.
However, the vendor may decide at a late stage in the compulsory purchase process to proceed by agreement, which is some time after the agency needs to enter the land in order to survey and value it. The amendment would hinder the process. With the greatest respect, it is probably contrary to its intended effect and could be quite unhelpful. It could even result in forcing the agency to complete an acquisition via the compulsory purchase route in circumstances in which the landowner would otherwise be willing to sell by agreement. That, in turn, is likely to lead to unnecessary delay in site acquisition. In addition, the amendment may prevent the clause from applying to other situations—for example, if the owner agreed to sell the agency the property, but a tenant of the property did not want to allow the agency access to the land. The amendment is neither necessary nor useful, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree to withdraw it.
If I may turn to amendment No. 66—
The Chairman: No, amendment No. 66 is due next.
Alistair Burt: I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Alistair Burt: I beg to move amendment No. 66, in clause 19, page 9, line 36, leave out subsections (5) to (7).
I inadvertently referred to this amendment in our previous discussion.
Mr. Love: We were enjoying it so much.
Alistair Burt: The hon. Gentleman and I have a long history of enjoying each other’s remarks in other circumstances—in enlightened Haringey council, where we sat in the early ’80s. My goodness, the definition of “manifesto” and what the Labour party stood for in those far off days are a long way from where they are today, but we will refer to that on another occasion. We have had a long and enjoyable relationship over the years, and I am glad that he still enjoys my remarks—as, indeed I enjoy his. Long may it continue.
Clause 19 will create an offence where an individual obstructs someone acting under the powers of the HCA when entering land. As I have said before, the concern is whether the measure is a little heavy—whether this should be an offence or a civil matter—and whether it will raise the stakes in circumstances where feelings might be running high. There may be a contentious purchase in circumstances that we cannot currently envisage but that we know can occur—over a contested piece of land and a contested issue. Temperatures might be high regarding an HCA purchase and a development that may cause concern locally. Will the Minister consider whether creating an offence is really necessary?
Mr. Wright: I suggest that amendment No. 66 has the potential to render clause 19 entirely redundant because it would effectively make the power unenforceable. Why should it not be an offence intentionally to stop someone entering land to survey it or to estimate its value within the framework of the proper exercise of the statutory power? Clause 19 requires the authorised person to be able to produce evidence of their authorisation to enter the land before they do so. Any proposed entry must be at a reasonable time and the Homes and Communities Agency must have given at least 28 days’ notice of the intended entry.
Having gone through those entirely reasonable and standard steps, why should the agency then be unable to enforce its right of entry if someone deliberately prevents its representative from carrying out their duties? I hope that I have reassured the hon. Gentleman about amendments Nos. 64 and 65, but I am surprised that he has pushed amendment No. 66, because he will be delighted to hear that the clause is modelled on an equivalent provision in the Leasehold Reform, Housing and Urban Development Act 1993, as well as on other Acts, such as the Local Government, Planning and Land Act 1980. I imagine that he had something to do with the former measure.
I stress that the powers are necessary to ensure that the purchase of land progresses smoothly, that land is accurately surveyed, and that the seller is appropriately recompensed for the land. That enforcement is important to move swiftly on, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw the amendment.
5.15 pm
Alistair Burt: The Minister’s good intentions are clear. I wanted to probe him about the reasons for the potential offence, and I am content with his explanation. I would be interested if his Department could supply some information on whether the powers have needed to be used, and whether there have been any prosecutions under legislation as modelled in the Bill.
Mr. Wright: I pledge to the hon. Gentleman that I will find out and write to the Committee.
Alistair Burt: I am grateful for the Minister’s assurance, which has been greeted with enormous joy by his officials, who must now look up the information. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 19 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clauses 20 and 21 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
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