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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 31 January 2008

[Mr. Joe Benton in the Chair]

Housing and Regeneration Bill

New Clause 58

Charities that have “received public assistance”
‘(1) For the purposes of this Part a registered charity has received public assistance if at least one of the following conditions is satisfied.
(2) Condition 1 is that the charity has received financial assistance from the HCA under section 22.
(3) Condition 2 is that the charity has received financial assistance under section 24 of the Local Government Act 1988 (c. 9) (assistance for privately let housing accommodation).
(4) Condition 3 is that the charity has had housing transferred to it pursuant to—
(a) a large scale disposal, within the meaning of section 34 of the Housing Act 1985 (c. 68), for which consent was required under section 32 or 43 of that Act, or
(b) a qualifying disposal that was made under section 135 of the Leasehold Reform, Housing and Urban Development Act 1993 (c. 28).
(5) Condition 4 is that the charity has received a grant or loan under—
(a) section 18 of the Housing Act 1996 (c. 52) (social housing grants),
(b) section 22 of that Act (assistance from local authorities),
(c) section 58 of the Housing Associations Act 1985 (c. 69) (grants or loans by local authorities),
(d) section 50 of the Housing Act 1988 (c. 50), section 41 of the Housing Associations Act 1985 or any enactment replaced by that section (housing association grant),
(e) section 51 of the Housing Act 1988 (c. 50) or section 54 or 55 of the Housing Associations Act 1985 (c. 69) (revenue deficit grant or hostel deficit grant),
(f) section 79 of the Housing Associations Act 1985 (c. 69) (loans by Housing Corporation),
(g) section 31 of the Housing Act 1974 (c. 44) (management grants), or
(h) any enactment mentioned in paragraph 2 or 3 of Schedule 1 to the Housing Associations Act 1985 (c. 69) (pre-1974 grants and certain loans).’.—[Mr. Wright.]
Brought up, read the First and Second time, and added to the Bill.

New Clause 6

Social housing tenant mobility
‘The Secretary of State, in accordance with powers contained in section 168 of the Local Government and Housing Act 1989 (c. 42), shall introduce a scheme to facilitate moves to and from the homes of tenants of social housing in England and shall consult with such bodies as appear to the Secretary of State to represent the interests of registered providers of social housing and local government.’.—[Grant Shapps.]
Brought up, and read the First time.
9 am
Grant Shapps (Welwyn Hatfield) (Con): I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
We are into the last lap. The new clause relates to housing association and local authority tenants who want to move in or out of their constituencies, and it is modelled on other previous schemes. People often want to move from one constituency to another. No doubt members of the Committee have met constituents who are anxious to move to another part of the country, perhaps because of an elderly parent who lives elsewhere, work or the need to move near to their parents for help with child care. People have many social and economic reasons for wanting to transfer their social housing.
Without mobility, we end up with families in the wrong size houses. Unlike owner-occupiers or tenants who can move more flexibly, it is sometimes difficult for people in social housing to move property, because of the lack of a proper scheme to help them to do so. Many members of the Committee will recall that my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire, who cannot be here today, introduced the national mobility scheme when he was Minister in 1981—it was launched by local authorities and new towns in England and Wales. In the 1990s, again under my right hon. Friend, the Housing Mobility and Exchange Service, HOMES, took over.
Lyn Brown (West Ham) (Lab): It did not work.
Grant Shapps: The fact that 100,000 tenants moved under that scheme made it popular and successful. The current Government inherited it in 1997, but it collapsed in May 2007 due to apparent mismanagement. The remaining staff of HOMES, which had been rebranded as Move UK, lost their jobs, and tens of thousands of tenants have since been left in the lurch.
My right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire held an Adjournment debate on the subject in June 2007, when the then Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn), said:
“What I have described is a range of interim measures that we put in place when Move UK was terminated, as well as a range of transitional schemes that enable people to experience some of the benefits that were previously available while we move to a point at which we can provide something that addresses the issues raised in the Hills report”.——[Official Report, 5 June 2007; Vol. 461, c.236-7]
It certainly sounded as though there was an intention to solve the problem. Surely the Housing and Regeneration Bill should reflect that moment, which is why I have tabled new clause 6.
With growth schemes and the requirement for the Thames Gateway to assist with housing pressures, and possibly to fill the homes with people who have moved from elsewhere in the country, a mobility scheme is essential. My right hon. Friend and I think that, and the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich is also in full agreement. In July 2007, he said that the
“Government must act very speedily indeed. The current framework is really not acceptable; the existing machinery has collapsed and there is no realistic opportunity for social tenants in many parts of the country to move outside their area...I am afraid that this is a very serious position, and it is wholly in conflict with the stated objectives of Government policy and those of the Hills review.”——[Official Report, 5 June 2007; Vol. 461, c. 233.]
The Minister responded:
“We are working to address all the issues raised by the Hills review, including concerns about low levels of mobility. The review provides an objective, comprehensive platform that can inform our future development.”
She then concluded:
“people need social mobility if we are to support sustainable, cohesive communities ... the Government continue to take the issue of housing mobility for social housing tenants seriously.”——[Official Report, 5 June 2007; Vol. 461, c. 236-8.]
This is surely the moment for the Government to act. There seems to be a consensus, pretty much on both sides of the House but certainly within the Government, on this issue. In that light, I ask the Minister carefully to consider new clause 6. If he does not feel able to accept it at this stage, then perhaps we can return to it on Report, because it would genuinely improve the Bill.
Margaret Moran (Luton, South) (Lab): We are coming to the conclusion of this Bill. Many people are pleased about that, so I shall keep my contribution brief. I know what my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire would say, if he were here, although I do not support the amendment. As the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield has said, the Government intend to rectify the absence of a mobility scheme. I simply want to put some fire in their belly and to urge some speed on the matter. If my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire were here, he would remind us that the HOMES scheme, which was the main mobility scheme for RSL tenants, lasted for many years. Among the many schemes it comprised were things like the seaside and country homes scheme, from which many of my constituents benefited. Indeed, when I was chair of housing in Lewisham, we used that scheme very successfully to tackle under-occupation. It addressed the issues of elderly people who needed to be near relatives or who wanted to retire to a place where they felt more comfortable, thus releasing family-sized homes in Lewisham.
Parts of the scheme were successful, but it has to be acknowledged that the HOMES scheme itself was not entirely successful, because the levels of mobility were never as high as intended and the relationship between different RSLs was rather cumbersome. I remember in my own housing association the difficulties in matching properties between housing association tenants. Many housing associations have very small numbers of units scattered across large areas—either across London or, in some cases, across parts of the country. That applies in my constituency, where we do not have major stocks of RSL units. We have several RSLs that have relatively small numbers of units, which makes mobility within the borough almost impossible. As our Luton housing strategy states, there is no way in which we can tackle housing within our borough boundaries.
A great deal of our hope for that strategy rests on the Bill and on the Milton Keynes-south midlands growth area, but before that scheme comes to fruition, we have an acute crisis where we simply cannot accommodate people within the borough boundary. Furthermore, people who need to move for employment purposes are finding it incredibly difficult, particularly if they are RSL tenants. I have cases upon cases—I had another one again this week—where large families in RSL accommodation, many of whom are very overcrowded, need to move either for employment reasons or because they are severely overcrowded and large units simply do not exist within the borough. They are prepared to move outside the borough to accommodate their family’s needs, but they cannot do that because of the difficulties of moving between RSLs. They therefore find themselves in a situation where they are playing ping-pong, being passed between the RSL and the local authority in trying to find somewhere suitable for their needs.
The absence of a proper mobility system does not make it for easy for people who are in extreme housing circumstances, people who need to move for employment reasons and elderly people who need to be near their family for caring purposes. We know that the replacement for HOMES was not the best success, to put it politely. Let us be frank: it was a pig’s ear of a system that simply did not work—we all have to be frank. Lots of money was put into a system that was clearly not capable of dealing with it.
If we are honest, since then we have all to a large extent recoiled from looking at the issue, because, having experienced such an unsuccessful system, the complexity of trying to establish another system has put this debate on the back burner. That is a tragedy, because it is not beyond the wit of the Government to come up with a system that can work, despite the unfortunate occurrence with the replacement to HOMES.
The former Minister for Housing, now the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, indicated that she was in favour of a regional choice-based lettings scheme. I accept that there is a role for such a scheme, but I simply point out that in many areas we have not even got to a local choice-based lettings scheme. In my constituency, the housing department is considering one, but we have not got there, and my hon. Friend the Minister has indicated that the situation is the same in his local authority. We are some way off having even local schemes from which to build a regional choice-based system.
I stress the urgency of the issue. This Bill and the Hills report, which has been mentioned, stress the need for mobility within the social housing sector, a point with which we all agree because we see it in our casework on a day-to-day basis. If we are to make that a reality, we need to do it speedily. I am not convinced that waiting for local authorities to get up to speed with local choice-based lettings systems and then trying to build a regional choice-based lettings system on top of that will have the speedy impact that we need. I therefore urge the Minister to consider how we can find a replacement on a national level that has a regional choice-based lettings system built into it and that is based on the principle of a choice-based lettings system—such systems are extremely effective, when they work well. We need a national system.
The fact that we have had a rather painful time with the replacement of HOMES should not undermine the fact that we need a replacement, and we need it as speedily as possible, if we are to achieve the aims set out in this Bill.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, South has rightly highlighted, the difficulty with schemes that relate to only one type of landlord or to one area is that they often fail to promote mobility on the scale that is needed. There is a need to bring those schemes together.
Many years ago, in a previous incarnation, I was involved in setting up a housing association mobility scheme which went under the happy name of HALO, the housing association liaison office. That was limited to housing associations, which was not sufficient, so it had to be widened to bring in local authorities. London is currently exploring the options for a mobility scheme. Good progress has been made with a commitment of, I think, 5 per cent. of the housing stock from all the participating London boroughs. This is a good commitment to trying to ensure a sufficient number of homes to give momentum to the objective, but that is limited to London.
I press my hon. Friend the Minister to give a positive response to the new clause, because it is about meeting a need and the current arrangements are unsatisfactory. The collapse of Move UK was deplorable and I do not think that it will go down in the annals as one of the finer administrative performances of this Government. I wholeheartedly endorse the view expressed by the right hon. Member for South-West Hampshire. [Hon. Members: “North-West.”] I always get it wrong. I endorse the view expressed by the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire that something must be done. The Member for South-West Bedfordshire is no longer with us. [Hon. Members: “North-East.”] The hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire is no longer with us. The answer to that problem is to stop digging, but I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will provide a favourable response.
9.15 am
Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): The right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich talks about his halo, which proves what I have always suspected: he is a little angel. The new clause has been well discussed already. It is obviously sensible and I support it. I hope that the Minister this time does not have to disagree fundamentally with something simply because it came from the Opposition.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Iain Wright): Good morning to you, Mr. Benton, and the rest of the Committee. I fully understand the intention and purpose behind the new clause tabled by the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield. I agree with the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire that there is a political consensus about it. I and the Government agree that mobility is important; we have already announced measures to increase opportunities for people to move, and I will come to those shortly. The ability to fund such mobility schemes is already contained in section 168 of the Local Government and Housing Act 1989, which gives the Secretary of State the power to make grants or loans towards the cost of arrangements for enabling or assisting tenants to move in England, Wales or Scotland. Therefore, although I agree with everything that has been said in Committee this morning, the new clause is unnecessary. I want to set out the Government’s policy on record. The Government are committed to improving and increasing the options to move available to social housing tenants. As the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield has said and my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, South has reiterated, the benefits to individual tenants are obvious to us all. Grandparents want to move to be with their grandchildren, families want to be closer together and people want to move to take up employment opportunities and we should facilitate that as much as possible.
Mobility is also important for the wider social housing agenda. Enabling an elderly person to move from a property that is perhaps too big for their needs to a smaller home nearer to their grandchildren creates a vacant property that can be used for an overcrowded family. We debated the importance of freeing up such properties to help relieve overcrowding when we were discussing new clauses 13 to 33 last week. In that respect, there is an awful lot to do and I do not want to reiterate the points that have been made already about the difficulties with previous national mobility schemes. Where we are now and where we are heading towards are the important points to address.
The Chief Secretary to the Treasury, my right hon. Friend the Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), when she was Minister for Housing, set out in December last month the Government’s programme for making social housing fairer, more effective and more personal. As I have said, we recognise that that is not meeting the needs of all tenants and mobility plays an important part in changing that, but we want to learn from the mistakes of the past. We need to avoid them and we need to ensure that we meet the needs of those who require social housing and those who want to move within and into social housing. The number of new lettings in the social housing sector fell from 591,200 in 1998-89 to 409,400 in 2005-06, and that has reduced the number of opportunities for people to move. Most moves are now local, and arranged by landlords. The proportion of moves through a mobility scheme as a percentage of overall lets fell between 1998-99 and 2005-06 from 1.48 per cent. to 0.36 per cent. so there is a challenge there and we need to increase the number of moves. There are three broad areas of mobility that need addressing, which my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, South touched on, and we have already taken steps to improve opportunities in each. Those three areas are local, sub-regional and national.
At the local level, research by Ipsos MORI on barriers to mobility has shown that most tenants wishing to move want to do so locally, staying within five miles of their existing home, and enabling them to retain social and cultural ties. That certainly seems true of my own constituency.
We recognise that many tenants will want to remain living in the family home where they raised their children, and they will be able to do so. However, we need to ensure that the existing housing stock is used to best effect—the subject of a very good debate on overcrowding we had in Committee last week. We want to ensure that tenants have the opportunity to downsize—wherever they live—so that large family homes can be allocated to families with children, or those living in overcrowded conditions.
Margaret Moran: I thank my hon. Friend for that. It is important that priority is given to homes that are under-occupied, to release family homes. When my right hon. Friend, the Member for North-West Hampshire and I spent many a happy year on the HOMES scheme, our priority was housing need. I notice that some London authorities are talking about moving away from housing need as the main priority for allocating housing in future. Will my hon. Friend take this opportunity—notwithstanding what he has just said—to re-emphasise the fact that housing need will be the main criteria, rather than any others that seem to be emerging from some London authorities?
Mr. Wright: That is an important point. I want to make sure that everybody, regardless of status, has the appropriate house. As I said, some people may need assistance to achieve that. We have reiterated time and again in this Committee the need to ensure that houses that are too large for people’s current needs are allocated accordingly. That helps free up supply of housing to allow new families to come in. As I said, we want to retain as much as possible.
My constituency will be very similar to others in that I often think of it—I talk about Sheffield in a similar way—as the largest village in the world.
Ms Angela C. Smith (Sheffield, Hillsborough) (Lab): Sheffield is.
Mr. Wright: My hon. Friend says that Sheffield is. People do want to stay in close areas—to be close to their families; their children and grandchildren. Time and time again, a grandmother comes to see me and says “I am living in a three-bedroom council house and would like a bungalow close to my family. So that the grandchildren can stay, I need two bedrooms. I also would like to stay in the same area, as that will enable my daughter to go out to work.” That is crucial. Such a move increases employment opportunities and we need to be doing as much as possible to ensure that it can happen. I think that is the real challenge to any local, sub-regional or national mobility scheme.
To take my own particular area as an example, Hartlepool is part of the Tees Valley, and it could be that the vast majority of people who want to move, want to do so within the boundaries of Hartlepool local authority. However, there will be a number of people whose families have moved to Middlesbrough or Stockton and they will want to move within that sub-region. So we need to help that as much as possible.
An additional £2 million investment over the next two years will enable all councils to be part of such a sub-regional scheme by 2010. Eleven schemes are already up and running and the others will be active by 2010. Cross-boundary mobility is planned in 86 per cent. of these schemes, with most proposing to put aside a percentage of their lets for sub-regional mobility moves.
Such schemes as Home Selector in Guildford, Hart, Rushmore and Waverley have already ring-fenced a set 10 per cent. of the housing supply for cross-boundary mobility moves. Other schemes, including those in East Devon and the Derbyshire Dales, High Peak and Amber Valley, enable all home-seekers to apply for properties across all the local authorities involved.
The Government have agreed funding of £760,000 over the next two years for the implementation of a London-wide accessible housing register as part of the pan-London choice. It is known as Capital Moves. This offers people the chance to move across different London authorities. London councils will deliver Capital Moves and are encouraging participation from all 33 London boroughs. The Capital Moves partners also include other stakeholders, such as the Greater London Authority, the Housing Corporation and relevant registered social landlords.
There are a further 14 sub-regional schemes in development, of which five schemes include the ring-fencing of between 5 and 25 per cent. of the housing supply for mobility purposes. Four other local authorities have already committed to allowing sub-regional mobility applicants to bid for any of their available housing supply. The remainder are considering the level of commitment to mobility. So the main mechanism for local and sub-regional moves is well established, with schemes already funded in 65 per cent. of local authorities and additional investment available to other local authorities by 2010.
We have discussed sub-regions, so now I come on to national schemes. Our challenge is to make sure that we can meet the needs of those who wish to move nationally, from one sub-region to another, and that is a big challenge. We are working with the Housing Corporation and key social landlords and authorities to develop proposals for increasing mobility across the country. For example, we are looking at whether a percentage of lets should be reserved and pooled for those looking to move further afield. My hon. Friend the Member for Luton, South mentioned the seaside and country homes mobility scheme. We have recently relaunched that scheme; it gives elderly tenants in London the opportunity to downsize and move to more suitable and preferred locations. Since its relaunch some six months ago, this scheme has given more than 150 older tenants the opportunity to move and resulted in the freeing up of much-needed and often under-occupied properties in London. We are evaluating options for expanding nationally the work done by that scheme and other mobility options.
So if I can sum up, I suggest with the greatest respect to the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield that new clause 6 is unnecessary because we already have the legislative power to fund a national mobility scheme. Let me stress again the Government’s commitment and my own personal commitment to this. Mobility is a key priority for this Government, but I am very keen to avoid the mistakes of the past. We have already taken action to increase opportunities for local and sub-regional moves and we have put in place specific work and projects to determine the best way to deliver national housing mobility.
Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): The only reason I rise is to emphasise the importance given in the Hills review to the need for national mobility for economic reasons. While I accept what my hon. Friend the Minister has said about local and sub-regional mobility, it does appear from what he has said that perhaps not enough priority is being given to an effective national mobility scheme. It seems sensible to take a certain percentage of property in order to achieve that, but can he give us some more reassurance that this is a major priority for the Government?
Mr. Wright: Yes, it is a major priority because a progressive Government should facilitate social mobility to ensure greater economic prosperity. This is absolutely key, and as I have said, the vast majority of moves will be local and sub-regional, but it is important, as my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton rightly says, that for economic purposes we have that national scheme. It has not worked well in the past, and as we move the Hills agenda forward in the next few months and years I do see it as a major priority to tap into the talent and enterprise of everybody in this country and ensure that they can take advantage of opportunities and achieve prosperity. National mobility schemes are a way to do that, so it will become even more of a priority for this Labour Government.
I hope I have explained the policy. There is cross-party consensus on this very important issue, and I hope the hon. Gentleman will not press his new clause.
Grant Shapps: I thank the Minister for what was a full, although I suspect not very enlightening, response. He read beautifully from his eight-page brief on the subject, but it was noticeable that the answer was actually missing. There is a hotch-potch of schemes out there, but unless the Government actually grasp the issue and pull them all together, it is almost irrelevant whether the power to fund schemes exists in the Housing and Local Government Act 1989, because we do not know the time scale within which the Government intend to act. I appreciate what the Minister says about the review that was launched last month; I thought that there might be some comment on that review as we debated the Bill, and I am disappointed that there has not been.
9.30 am
We need the Government to commit to a time scale within which they will come up with something more solid than the vagueness contained within the many pages of answer to this debate. Will it be possible, by the time the Bill is discussed on Report, for the Minister to come back to the House with a time scale that would be appropriate for fulfilling the obvious desire that exists on both sides of the House?
Mr. Wright: I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman’s tenacity in pushing me on this. He had made a request for further work before Report, and that is something that I am happy to consider, but as I have said, I do not want to introduce measures in a haphazard manner. This is an important policy objective; we want to get it right to avoid the mistakes of the past, but I shall certainly do my best to bring it back on Report.
Grant Shapps: I remind the Minister that the Government have had 11 years to get it right, and it would not be rushing it to try to put something in place—perhaps not a scheme, but an idea of a direction or a time scale—on Report. On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.
Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.
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