Housing and Regeneration Bill

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Clause 41

Information services
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Mr. Raynsford: I broadly support the purpose of the clause, which is to give the new agency powers to provide information, disseminate ideas and undertake research, thus carrying forward powers that are available to the Housing Corporation and English Partnerships. I seek guidance from my hon. Friend the Minister on whether he envisages any new areas in which research may be undertaken, information may be provided or ideas disseminated—[Interruption.]
The Chairman: Order. The level of background noise is getting rather high.
Mr. Raynsford: Thank you, Mr. Benton.
I simply seek guidance on whether there are likely to be any new areas of initiative taken by the new agency. If so, what is the thinking behind that and what are the resource implications? I understand, from our debates on Tuesday on an earlier clause, that the agency will be able to recover reasonable costs by levying charges for providing information or research. It would help to know whether that is likely to involve any expansion of the agency’s activity and, if so, in which areas.
Mr. Wright: My right hon. Friend raises an interesting point. Given that there needs to be a step change in what the agency does, in comparison with its predecessor organisations, I anticipate that it will work in new fields, such as project management. I understand that English Partnerships and the Housing Corporation already have such roles, but I imagine that there will be new and innovative research on project management and perhaps communication.
We have talked about how the agency will have to have a key role—a primary role, following my response to my right hon. Friend—in facilitating, enabling, partnership working and community engagement. I do not want to box the agency in on what it does, but I imagine that as a resource hub and repository of best practice, it will help people step up to the plate and local communities to become involved in planning permission. It will also help to ensure that infrastructure projects are understood and communicated as much as possible.
In our deliberations on clause 27 my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, South mentioned concerns that work at the Housing Corporation’s centre for research and market intelligence might be restricted if the agency were to undertake it using the powers in clause 41. The HCA would be able to take on the work of the CRMI under that clause and the following one, and would not be restricted in any way by the wording of clause 41. I hope that addresses my hon. Friend’s concerns, and that I have answered my right hon. Friend’s points about how the agency will provide research.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 41 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 42

Advice, education and training
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Mr. Raynsford: This is a supplementary point about the Academy for Sustainable Communities, the body that is likely to become Cinderella to the new agency unless we draw attention to it. All our discussions have been about the merging of the Housing Corporation and English Partnerships, the two big components of the new body, but the third component is the academy, which has an important role in advice, education and training—the subjects of the clause. I should be grateful if my hon. Friend the Minister could indicate the areas where the academy, in its new role as part of the agency, will address the challenges that we face, not least of appropriate skills for the achievement of the Government’s ambitious housing and regeneration targets.
Mr. Syms: Over recent years, we have seen the importance of involving communities, particularly disadvantaged communities, on many of the larger estates. I am thinking of places such as Castle Vale in Birmingham, where major schemes have involved tenants and communities. Does the Minister envisage that an element of the measure could be to help train community members to be advocates for their communities and put forward what people want at grass roots, so that when there are development schemes, one is better able to drill down, there is no top-down process and the HCA does its best to involve local communities and get community members to say what their communities want in the way of redevelopment and sustainability?
Mr. Wright: I am grateful to the Committee for bringing the issue to wider attention. My right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich is right: although the focus has been on the establishment of the HCA due to the merger of English Partnerships and the Housing Corporation, we should not forget the vital role of the Academy for Sustainable Communities in ensuring that we have real community engagement. I am excited by what the academy does, and there is a real opportunity in the Bill to expand its work.
We must work to encourage people to have a stake in their communities and to realise that quality of life and the built environment are important. People can become productively and positively involved in their communities by taking up careers as planning surveyors, architects or landscapers. I am really excited by that work and I would like to drive it forward, certainly at ministerial level.
Margaret Moran: Does my hon. Friend envisage the expansion of some of the ideas that he has outlined? For example, I have been working closely with Ashram housing association in Birmingham, which has worked with its south Asian women tenants to ensure that they gain qualifications in design and architecture and can help to design their own homes. Such schemes give people skills and potential for employment, while dealing with issues such as sustainable communities and regeneration. I hope that the HCA will take a much more positive role in expanding such projects.
Mr. Wright: I certainly hope so, too. I am pleased that my hon. Friend mentioned Ashram, because its representatives have been to see me. We talked about skilling specific diverse communities and about ensuring that in areas where black and minority ethnic communities, women and younger people are not involved in the careers that I mentioned they step up to the plate to ensure that they become involved. That is vital, so I am really encouraged and excited by what is going on and I want to see those things go forward. The academy is really good and will make still more progress when it is in the agency.
Mr. Nick Hurd (Ruislip-Northwood)(Con): Of course, the Bill is not the only opportunity for the Academy for Sustainable Communities to expand now that the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 is on the statute book. As the promoter of the private Member’s Bill that led to the Act, I am obviously delighted to support the academy’s expansion. May I press the Minister a little further, however, on what expansion means in this context? How much more financial assistance will the Government put into that expansion?
Mr. Wright: That will be an operational decision for the agency’s chief executive and senior management. The clear expectation is that the agency will help people to realise what they can do to promote sustainable communities. In that respect, I pay tribute to what the hon. Gentleman did in the 2007 Act. However, if the agency is really to step up to the plate to ensure that communities are engaged and that potential barriers to housing growth and community infrastructure are identified, addressed and resolved, the academy will need to play a bigger role. That is what I mean by expansion.
I have mentioned young people and potential skills shortages, but let me also mention professionals because the professional bodies have a role to play. The academy has identified the need to target professionals and deliver a co-ordinated programme of integrated learning and skills training to those working in sustainable communities. That will improve their skills and awareness and ensure that future generations are attracted to the relevant professions and that those working in them are excited by them and want to move forward still further. Again, this is a real opportunity, and I am really excited by it.
The third strand of the work programme identified by the academy relates directly to the point made by the hon. Member for Poole about community leaders. The academy wants to raise awareness and understanding of sustainable community issues among community leaders and to support the building of the capacity and capability to deliver on those issues.
From what I have heard, the whole Committee is really excited, as I am, about the Academy for Sustainable Communities. As John F. Kennedy said,
“Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country”,
and the academy will be doing that on a sustainable community level. It is really exciting that people can make an impact in their area by using architects, landscapers and planning surveyors to raise standards and quality of life, and that planning and design, which we mentioned on earlier clauses, can play a central role. Through the agency, the academy will be able to ensure that that happens. I have been encouraged by our debate, as I hope other hon. Members have been, and I hope that they will be attracted to stuff that is going on in their constituencies and will ensure that the agency plays a part across the country.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 42 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 43

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
10.15 am
Lembit Öpik: I notice that the Minister has resorted to quoting John F. Kennedy, which is appropriate because the Bill has such a wide remit that technically it could organise a moon landing and not go beyond the limits of its involvement.
Mr. Wright: I think we need a debate on whether the agency will be a direct provider of the moon launch, because I know that the hon. Gentleman is interested in space and asteroids. Would it help to facilitate that moon landing, or would it be a direct provider?
In a more mundane context, I have a simple question about the guidance that the HCA can give
“to such persons as it considers appropriate about any matters relating to its objects.”
Clauses 48 and 49 make it clear that there is a difference between guidance and directions. Although those clauses relate to the Secretary of State, presumably there is some distinction between guidance and directions. Due to my inexperience of my portfolio there may be a standard answer that I do not know, but will the Minister clarify the matter? How binding is the guidance that the HCA gives? Is it mandatory, or is it, within the more conventional meaning of the word, exactly that—guidance and advice? I hope the question makes sense to the Minister, and that he can provide some clarification.
Mr. Raynsford: My question to the Minister is on a different tack. I assume that the main purpose of clause 43 is to allow the agency to give guidance to providers and others involved in the provision of social housing and regeneration in the way that both the Housing Corporation and English Partnerships do at present.
Within the current arrangements, another area has always been problematic: the relationship between the regulatory function of the Housing Corporation and its investment function. The question has always been how to maintain a proper distinction between those two functions, but without allowing nonsense to develop whereby the investment side puts money into an organisation that is subject to concern from the regulatory side. That will be part of the framework under the new arrangements whereby the regulator will be a different body from the funder and there will at times be questions about whether it is sensible for regulatory action to be taken in respect of an organisation that is seen to be in difficulty.
We know that in general the record over the past 30 years or so has been good in terms of successful housing associations. When problems have arisen, the Housing Corporation has been able to intervene and the problems have generally been overcome without loss of public money or threat to tenants. However, as the recent case involving Ujima housing association highlighted, unhappy circumstances can rapidly develop in which an association that had previously been regarded as a safe recipient of investment finance may seem to be getting into financial difficulties or to be acting not entirely properly in its financial decisions, and regulatory intervention may become necessary. In the Ujima case, questions were asked about whether action was taken early enough when the first warning signals appeared about the organisation not performing as well as it should. My question is: does guidance in clause 43 extend to guidance being issued by the agency to the regulator in such circumstances?
It will be essential to have a clear understanding and a mechanism to ensure the sharing of information between the two bodies, where there are doubts about the performance of individual bodies, and where regulatory action may be necessary. If it is not provided under this part of the Bill, where will arrangements be defined to ensure that there can be a proper and appropriate system for sharing information between the agency and the regulator in such circumstances?
Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD): I launched the probing contributions made so far. Indeed my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire launched a space probe a moment ago. I was not quite sure which planet he was coming from, but I was reassured because in the end it was a very thoughtful contribution.
Lembit Öpik: You are supposed to be on my side.
Andrew George: Just to reassure my hon. Friend, I fully support him.
Presumably, the HCA will be giving guidance to RSLs and others—local authorities and so forth. Chapter 5 refers to guidance and direction from the Secretary of State. To what extent will the HCA be expected to offer formal guidance to Government agencies, to the Treasury and the Secretary of State? That is not clear, so perhaps the Minister could point out where it is formally provided for in the Bill?
We have noted that the HCA produces an annual report. A lot of bodies that provide housing—RSLs for example—will be making representations to Government, and they would be greatly strengthened if the HCA itself endorsed the concerns of those agencies. An example is the manner in which stamp duty applies to shared equity properties. In many parts of the country when such a property is purchased, the contribution of the occupant is well below stamp duty level but they still have to pay stamp duty because the value of the whole property is above the stamp duty threshold. In those circumstances, and given the fact that it is not open market housing, I hope that the HCA would support social housing providers by endorsing that concern. The Government need to address the anomaly whereby people they and the HCA are attempting to support through low-cost shared equity properties are penalised by having to pay stamp duty. In that instance, it would be appropriate for the HCA to make representations not just to the Secretary of State but to the Treasury itself. Can the Minister reassure us that it would be a right and proper thing for the HCA to do?
Mr. Wright: I am grateful to Members for that interesting line of questioning. On the point raised by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire about whether the word guidance is to be understood in the conventional sense, I reassure him that guidance is guidance.
It might be helpful if I set out what sort of guidance we expect the agency to provide. It could provide guidance on anything relating to its objects and we have discussed at length improving the supply and quality of housing, regeneration and community development. The sort of guidance the agency might issue could be similar to what English Partnerships and the Housing Corporation have been doing. For example, in relation to its investment functions, the Housing Corporation issues a piece of main guidance called the capital funding guide, designed to help registered social landlords understand the procedures and requirements relating to capital grant.
It being twenty-five minutes past Ten o’clock, The Chairman adjourned the Committee without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.
Adjo urned till this day at One o’clock.
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