Housing and Regeneration Bill

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Clause 52

Abolition of the Commission for the New Towns
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Sir George Young: I would like a short debate on this clause, which gives the Secretary of State powers by order to appoint the date of the abolition of the Commission for the New Towns. I thought that it had already been abolished. It is rather like going to the House of Lords and finding that someone whom one thought had died some time ago is still around.
I have a press release from 1995 from the National Audit Office, which states:
“In July 1993 the Secretary of State for the Environment announced his intention to wind-up the Commission itself by the end of March 1998.”
Given that English Partnerships was created in May 1999 as a merger between the commission and the Urban Regeneration Agency, it is unclear to me why the commission has survived. What is it doing? No new towns have been created since 1970 and I think that most were wound up in 1980. I remember going around the country winding them up and meeting local authorities that pleaded to be allowed to go on for even longer, to invest in their areas, although they had all opposed their establishment at the beginning. What assets does the commission have? As I recall, all that it was given were some roundabouts that the original new town had not been able to pass on to the local authority.
Although we are abolishing the commission in clause 52, it is being exhumed in clause 54. Will the Minister tell us why the residuary body that was set up in 1981—I may have had something to do with it myself—is still around? What is it doing and how much has it left to do? When will he finally put the gravestone on top of it?
1.30 pm
Mr. Wright: The right hon. Gentleman might be disappointed to hear that it is still in operation; it is still technically alive. However, he is correct that all new towns have been wound up. The CNT calls them residuary assets, which were not transferred back to the local authority at that time. He mentioned roundabouts—I imagine that it is that sort of thing. I have not got details to hand, but could provide the Committee with them if it wishes. However, given that the residuary assets will be held by the agency, which will have responsibilities towards them, it will take over the commission’s functions in respect of those assets.
There is always the possibility that the Government will choose to establish new new-town development corporations to help with, for example—
Mr. Love: Eco-towns.
Mr. Wright: My hon. Friend is quite right—eco-towns. If so, the assets of the new new towns would eventually transfer to the agency. That is the technical explanation, and I hope that it reassures the right hon. Gentleman.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 52 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Schedule 5 agreed to.
Clause 53 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Schedule 6 agreed to.

Clause 54

Role of the HCA in relation to former CNT functions
Andrew George: I beg to move amendment No. 36, in clause 54, page 23, line 17, at end insert—
‘(3A) The Secretary of State shall make provision for the continuation of the functions of the Commission for the New Towns in respect of workshops and industrial building, through the transfer of those functions to another authority.’.
Having listened to the debate on clause 52, I feel that my amendment is deficient in some respects. However, I shall use this as an opportunity to probe the Minister, who is aware of my concerns. The clause should be made more explicit to protect the valuable work of English Partnerships, which otherwise could easily be lost or submerged in the clear objectives set out in clause 2. English Partnerships has always supported the provision of employment floor space, which is one of the outputs against which it has been measured since it was established. The agency has progressed specific programmes on, for example, priority sites and network space, designed to deliver employment floor space in areas where the private sector is reluctant to invest.
That key provision could easily be neglected in the Bill. Perhaps unbeknown to some, English Partnerships has developed workshops in communities where no social housing remains—communities in which the HCA might not be interested. None the less, such communities have a need for employment opportunities and the prospect that local businesses could flourish, but the private sector might find that it is not commercially viable or attractive to set up workshops and employment space in such places. In those circumstances, English Partnerships has made a significant difference, and its work should not be overlooked. From the perspective of those concerned about the future of rural areas, it is important that that important work is not lost.
The statutory background to English Partnerships’ support for employment floor space can be found in section 159 of the Leasehold Reform, Housing and Urban Development Act 1993, which sets out the objects of the Urban Regeneration Agency. Section 159(4)(b) states:
“by developing, or encouraging the development of, existing and new industry and commerce”.
I acknowledge that the Bill includes powers to allow the HCA to support existing or new businesses and these are set out in clauses 31 to 33 which were debated earlier. The Bill, in clause 42, would also allow the HCA to provide advice. What concerns me is that in those clauses, particularly clause 33, the provision of work space in the context which I described earlier is not sufficiently explicit. If a list is going to be made then something could easily be overlooked or submerged in the future work of the agency. I urge the Minister, therefore, to look very carefully at this issue and see whether he could bring forward proposals or perhaps work together on a proposed amendment which would allow this to be more explicit.
Targets are set through English Partnerships’ corporate planning process and agreed with Ministers. English Partnerships’ core targets cover housing units and other issues but also employment floor space and private-sector investment attracted. In 2006-97, English Partnerships provided 326,000 sq m of employment floor space which matched well against their target of 300,000 sq m. I do not see anything in the Bill where such a target would be permitted or required of the HCA to ensure that employment floor space of this type is produced and that is why I hope that the Minister will consider carefully the need to make more explicit that important function, which I fear otherwise will be lost and submerged.
Mr. Wright: I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman who has been tenacious in this line of questioning. He has been so throughout the debate, from oral evidence sessions onwards, in a very sincere manner. I suggest that such a provision is not necessary in respect of his concerns because the powers of the agency are already sufficiently wide to provide industrial building or workshops, should the regeneration or sustainability of a community or area warrant such development. I draw his attention to clause 33 which contains the phrases
“encourage or develop existing or new businesses...provide business or employment services”.
Those specifically and sufficiently refer to encouraging or developing the matters to which he alluded.
We are reiterating and rehashing some of the earlier debate but it is important to reassure the hon. Gentleman that, while the focus of the agency may be towards increasing the supply of housing, it is also tasked with ensuring that any housing developed is supported by the necessary infrastructure, which will include the provision of adequate employment facilities for the area in question should it be needed.
I have made the point on a number of occasions that I do not think that plonking 3 million homes in a field will be adequate. We need to ensure there is sufficient infrastructure, and an employment base is essential. The agency may facilitate the provision of these developments rather than develop itself but it has the power to do so which will be important in helping to fulfil its objects.
Andrew George: The Minister used the expression that the provision of housing is supported by other infrastructure. The question that I raised in my opening remarks was that there are some communities where English Partnerships has developed its workshops where no social housing has been provided at the same time. In some villages, social housing has been lost because it has all been sold but English Partnerships still provided those workshops. If the Minister is saying that industrial floor space and workshops will only be provided in circumstances where there is also some housing development, I remain concerned.
Mr. Wright: I hope that the hon. Gentleman does not forget about the importance of regional development agencies, the sub-national review and the explicit requirement for local authorities to be involved in economic development. That triumvirate—local authorities, RDAs and the agency—will be essential in reassuring him with regard to the importance of that regeneration of necessary industrial floor space. I hope that he asks leave to withdraw his amendment.
Andrew George: Having listened to what the Minister said, I still seek some further reassurance. I hope that he will take on board the concerns that I have raised, particularly in respect of rural areas, which are not necessarily scheduled to receive social housing of the type that we all want to see across the country in future. However, from a drafting and placing point of view, the issue that I am raising could be more appropriately drafted. I hope that the Minister will take this matter on board and consider the need for a more explicit statement in the Bill to reassure rural areas that these objectives will be met.
I am grateful for the Committee’s patience in allowing me to probe the issue. I am happy to beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 54 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 55

Interim arrangements
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Mr. Wright: Let me take this opportunity to update hon. Members on the smooth transition from the existing bodies to the new arrangements. I have to pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich, who has been articulate in expressing concerns that the new Homes and Communities Agency should hit the ground running to help achieve the ambitious target of 3 million new homes by 2020. It is pertinent and relevant to update the Committee on where we are with regard to that.
I should like to mention the work that is currently being carried out by the agency’s project board, which will be chaired by Sir Bob Kerslake. The work to date has identified three key work strands that will need to be delivered if the agency is to be established and become operational by April 2009. The first is organisational design and development; the second is the investment plan and finance; and the third is interventions, policy and stakeholders.
I am happy to provide Committee members with copies of a letter that Sir Bob Kerslake has sent to English Partnerships and Housing Corporation staff in the last few days, but I thought that it would reassure them if I cited it. Sir Bob states:
“I am personally delighted to have had confirmation of such an important transfer of delivery functions from CLG, including major new initiatives such as the delivery of the growth areas. This will underline the importance of the HCA as local government’s best delivery partner”—
he uses an important phrase there—
“able to bring together all of the strands of housing and regeneration delivery in powerful packages in support of local authority plans.”
I stressed that myself. With specific reference to the clause, Sir Bob says:
“As I mentioned in my last letter, I am creating a dedicated set up team to oversee the creation of the new Agency. This will be led by Trevor Beattie, currently Corporate Strategy Director of English Partnerships, who will be responsible for a small team of about a dozen headed up by Margaret Allen, currently the Housing Corporation’s Field Director Central, and Ros Dunn, a senior member of CLG who was formerly Director of Strategy for the Thames Gateway.”
I am more than happy to provide Committee members with a copy of Sir Bob’s letter. I hope that it reassures them that work is ongoing and that Sir Bob has hit the ground running in ensuring that the agency starts delivering as soon as possible.
Grant Shapps: I am pleased to hear about the interim arrangements and the progress. I represent two new towns, Welwyn Garden City and Hatfield. One of them, Hatfield, has had a new town centre promised for a very long time. It has proved to be a difficult and much-delayed project, the building of which should finally get under way in 2009, or perhaps at the end of 2008. The project falls under the auspices of a partnership between the council and English Partnerships, which will take over from the Commission for the New Towns.
I think that when people learn about the Homes and Communities Agency, they will seek the kind of reassurance that the Minister has been providing, because the last thing they want in a project with a time scale that runs to 2011 or 2012 is to feel that there could be another six months’ or year’s delay while the HCA gets up to speed. I am grateful for the Minister’s comments. They will be important for Hatfield and many other projects around the country.
1.45 pm
Sir George Young: I may not have accurately caught what the Minister said. On the interim arrangements, the clause states:
“The Secretary of State may...require the Urban Regeneration Agency and the Commission for the New Towns to provide staff, premises...on a temporary basis”,
but not the Housing Corporation. Is there any reason why it is left out of the requirement?
Mr. Wright: On the point that the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield made about Hatfield town centre, I mentioned earlier the three broad work strands: organisational design and development, investment plan and finance, and intervention policy and stakeholders. Under those three work strands, there are 20 further discrete ones that are intended to ensure that the establishment of the agency does not disrupt the continuing work of the Housing Corporation or English Partnerships, or the delivery functions of the Department for Communities and Local Government. Therefore, in respect of the particular example that the hon. Gentleman, as a good constituency MP, refers to—obviously, it would be better if there were a Labour gain—I hope that I have reassured him that we are moving forward and that there will be as little disruption to current plans as possible.
Mr. Raynsford: On that very point, I do not know whether inspiration has reached my hon. Friend the Minister, but it strikes me that there is an interesting curiosity in the Bill, in that we have already dealt with clauses 51 and 52, which abolish respectively the Urban Regeneration Agency and the Commission for the New Towns, but we have not yet reached clause 66, which provides for the dissolution of the Housing Corporation. It occurred to me that there may be some logic in making interim arrangements for those bodies that have already been abolished but not yet making such arrangements for the one that is due to be abolished in the next hour or so, if we proceed expeditiously.
Mr. Wright: I shall address the two points, which are the same. The Committee will be thrilled to hear that I have tabled new clause 35, which addresses the issue. It states:
“The Secretary of State may by notice require the Housing Corporation to provide staff, premises, facilities or other assistance to—
(a) the regulator, or
(b) the HCA.”
Sir George Young: Does that not show the risk of providing a list in a Bill?
Mr. Wright: A fair point.
Clause 55 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause s 56, 57 and 59 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
The Chairman: In case anyone is worried, we shall reach clause 58 with schedule 7 some time on or before 31 January. [ Interruption. ] You have to be sharp on your feet, Mr. Shapps. You will learn.
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