Select Committee on Communities and Local Government Committee Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40-59)

MR TIM ALLEN, MR GARETH DAVIES AND MR ANDREW BLAKE-HERBERT

27 FEBRUARY 2008

  Q40  John Cummings: I understand what you are saying. What I am trying to boil it down to is that whilst you can identify 400 immigrants who are causing perhaps problems, who are not fitting in, could you not equally identify 400 from the indigenous population who have been born and bred there, perhaps have lived there for several generations, and is the same attention not being directed towards those, and also equal resources directed towards these problems?

  Mr Blake-Herbert: Certainly in terms of as a local authority, we have a requirement to carry out Race Relations (Amendment) Act impact assessments on all services that we provide, and making sure that we are providing those services to the community. The key part there is when funding is falling, because of inaccurate population statistics, it gets much harder for the councillors within the borough to balance their responsibilities to the various parts of the communities and that is what then can raise the fears of cohesion.

  Q41  Chair: Can I just briefly on this numbers thing, we do not want to get into the detail of how we get the numbers right, but Mr Allen from the LGA, I know we have written evidence from the Borough of Newham and from Leicester, both of whom are also claiming that they are undercounted. I know Hammersmith & Fulham does, I know my own council does. Just roughly, how widespread do you think this issue is about councils claiming that the official estimates of population are too low, and are there more of them than there used to be?

  Mr Allen: I think the answer to your question is yes, it is very widespread. The system simply does not pick up on rapid population changes for two reasons: one, we are reliant fundamentally on the 2001 census, which is out of date, and yes, there are statistical manipulations, but those are based by and large on very small samples, which when you break them down to a local level simply do not work. Secondly, there are administrative data that sort of give you an indication—GP registers, school registers, National Insurance registrations—but none of those really give you a full picture. What they do tell you, when you look at them as a diagnostic, not as an ultimate count, it is very clear that the overall population is significantly higher than the estimates, and part of that is because we do not pick up on the churn. So some parts of the country exhibit rapid churn, so people may come in for six months and leave, but they are being replaced, so the overall population level within any given area is actually significantly higher than the apparent long-term level.

  Q42  Dr Pugh: The Equality and Human Rights Commission say that most economic migrants and refugees live in temporary private, particularly rented accommodation. Presumably you agree with that, yes?

  Mr Blake-Herbert: Yes.

  Q43  Dr Pugh: Presumably you also agree the bulk of that is HMOs as well?

  Mr Blake-Herbert: Yes.

  Q44  Dr Pugh: What are the practical difficulties facing communities where there are high numbers of HMOs catering for the migrant population? I mean not just simply problems it creates for the council, but problems it creates for the wider community that may be living adjacent.

  Mr Blake-Herbert: One of the key parts there at the beginning is local authorities have a responsibility to license three-storey houses of multiple occupation, and we are funded appropriately to be able to do that, supposedly funded appropriately. In terms of the key issues we are experiencing in Slough, we do not have a large number of three-storey buildings, so one of the things we have experienced is about two-storey HMOs, so these are predominantly standard three-bed semi houses being converted into HMOs which we then do not have the funding to be able to go out and license and inspect in the way that we would like to.

  Q45  Dr Pugh: So you are seeing a net growth of HMOs?

  Mr Blake-Herbert: Indeed.

  Q46  Dr Pugh: Can you put a percentage on that, broadly speaking?

  Mr Blake-Herbert: Percentage of it in terms of housing—

  Q47  Dr Pugh: Not in terms of housing. By what percentage is the HMO stock going up? 10 per cent, 20 per cent, 30 per cent?

  Mr Blake-Herbert: Over 20 per cent. In an 18-month period, we have had over 1,050 two-storey HMOs reported to us, and they were reported to the local authority predominantly by complaints from neighbours, so they are coming in in that way that we are getting identified.

  Q48  Dr Pugh: So probably the actual figure is higher still because there are some you still have not identified.

  Mr Blake-Herbert: Indeed. The members, as part of setting the council tax and the budget the other evening, did agree to put funding available to carry out an audit of these, because we recognise our responsibility to need to do that and understand it. The bigger issue will be that when we get the feedback from the audit saying there are this many, these are the locations, how we go and address that without having funding, because it is unscrupulous landlords making money on the back of migrants who are prepared to pay X amount—

  Q49  Dr Pugh: So there is a proliferation of unscrupulous landlords that councils are having difficulty currently policing; is that the view from the LGA?

  Mr Allen: Yes, it is, and it is quite widespread. I would not wish to say that all landlords are unscrupulous, there are many that are not, but there are quite clearly records across the country of difficulties in terms of pursuing HMOs where people are living in unsanitary conditions and then needing to—

  Q50  Dr Pugh: What needs doing about it? Does the Government need to make more money available or do councils need to alter their priorities?

  Mr Allen: I think we would have to say that at some stage, given the scale of what we have seen in the last few years, it has to be about funding. Where do you cut from if you are a small council in a rural area that is dealing with a very large influx of people that were not there four years ago?

  Mr Blake-Herbert: I think in response to that, again it is back to we have the responsibility under legislation to check and license those that are three-storey, but there is no such guidance around those that are two-storey, but it is about our responsibility to the health and well-being of the people in those properties and the surrounding properties.

  Q51  Dr Pugh: Just in terms of the observation, in terms of general effect on the community, if you get a proliferation of HMOs pepperpotting a particular area, where maybe the property is more amenable to change and alteration to HMO status, what effect does that have on the wider community?

  Mr Blake-Herbert: In terms of that, it is the health and well-being both of the individuals in those and the individuals in surrounding properties. So, for example, one of the key things in terms of what gets fed back to us, in terms of complaints, is the level of refuse that is created within those individual properties. When it is bin day and the refuse is put out, there are large amounts out, the bins are completely overfull, therefore the refuse teams will not collect them because there is additional waste.

  Q52  Dr Pugh: Councils need to go and explain?

  Mr Blake-Herbert: Indeed.

  Dr Pugh: I had an issue in my constituency where I think an HMO populated by Somalis had a barbecue, which is perfectly okay, the only thing is they had it in the front garden, in the road, and all that was needed was for them to have it explained that this was not what we did in the UK.

  Q53  Chair: Can I just ask a question of the Audit Commission about comprehensive area assessments? Which is: if councils choose not to specify community cohesion in their local area agreement, how are you going to assess whether they are actually promoting community cohesion?

  Mr Davies: Yes, the whole premise of the new framework, the comprehensive area assessment framework, is we will take more account of the priorities agreed by the local authority and its partners with central government, rather than impose a one size fits all assessment framework, regardless of the priorities of the area. So the preamble to our assessment is always to understand how that local area agreement has been arrived at, and the quality of the analysis that has gone into it and the basis on which those priorities have been arrived at. So is it based on a good understanding of the community and a good consultation with various parts of that community? So assuming the answer to that was yes, then we are not going to second guess the carefully arrived at local area agreement. The clear purpose of that is to steer resources to the priorities for that place. On the other hand, nor are we going to, as inspectorates, ignore the impact on potentially vulnerable people who are experiencing serious problems in an area. So if there is any evidence of that, clearly we would want to raise it and understand how the authority is responding, but the premise has to be that the local area agreement is well-founded and we have therefore focused on the priorities within that.

  Mr Allen: I think two things. One, I think I see no evidence that councils, particularly through their LAA, will ignore serious or potentially serious cohesion issues. Secondly, it is perhaps worth recording, you may be aware, but it is not always clear, that the Government's 198 indicators will all be measured and all recorded, so, if you like, those indicators are designed to pick up information at local level, at council level, so if cohesion is an issue and those indicators are well chosen, there will be clear evidence as to whether councils are tackling the problem or not.

  Q54  Chair: Can I ask a further question about funding? If a better way could be found to count how many people there are, is it your view that the additional funding should continue to come through the formula and, if so, how can the formula be responsive to rapid change that is actually occurring, given it is done over three years, or do you think that the Community Cohesion Fund, which I guess you would want to be bigger, is the better way of doing it, in that that could be more responsive to rapid change?

  Mr Blake-Herbert: I think it is a combination of both. From the point of view of an authority such as Slough, with hyper-diversity in the issues it has got, at the moment the population statistics say our population is falling; because the population is falling, we are losing funding from the point that we used to be at the ceiling on local authority funding, when ceilings existed, to the point that we are significantly beneath the floor. With three-year settlements, it is nice to have that understanding going forwards to know where you are going, but not when it is based on inaccurate flawed population statistics. The fact that we have three-year settlements means that in those interim periods there needs to be a responsive source of funding available for local authorities to be able to call on when they have particular pressures.

  Q55  Chair: Mr Allen?

  Mr Allen: I would agree with that. We very much welcome the £50 million cohesion funding, but the issue is wider. We have seen a very substantial increase in population. We applied a very cautious one per cent increase in population, and if you apply that one per cent increase in population to that element of local authority funding nationally that is driven by the population formula, that is about £25 billion. One per cent of that is about £250 million. I think that was our suggestion for a rapid response to this increase in population. I think long-term we have to have a system that, as Andrew says, gives us reasonable security of funding over a period of years because you have got to plan, but you have to have some mechanisms to be able to respond effectively to events of the sort we have seen in the last four years.

  Mr Blake-Herbert: To go back to the key point, whatever is made available, if it is through a specific grant, there needs to be a proper basis of allocation. Again, if is on a flawed basis, I would go back to the cohesion fund and say that has not been allocated on the best basis, it has not necessarily gone to those authorities that need it and, therefore, again, if it is specific grant funding, there needs to be a proper basis for allocating it.

  Q56  Andrew George: Can I presume, Mr Allen, that there is no local authority that is complaining that there has been an overestimate of migrant population?

  Mr Allen: That would be correct, yes.

  Q57  Andrew George: Can you envisage any formula fund which would be couched in such a way as to discourage local authorities from over inflating the migrant population?

  Mr Allen: I think I would turn that round and say that what we need is a transparent and effective means to measure local populations and to do so quickly and currently rather than relying on our census.

  Q58  Chair: Have you got an answer as to how you would do it?

  Mr Allen: I think, in the short-term, we will not restructure the system for collecting population statistics. What one has got to do is to take those sets of administrative data that give you a good diagnostic, make those transparent and available on a consistent basis and then use those as a check against the official national projections and, where the two are out of kilter, that is where one would need a discussion about budgetary allocations.

  Q59  Andrew George: Can I ask Mr Davies whether you are content that the method by which migrant populations are estimated is properly audited in order to avoid a situation where local authorities could, in fact, inflate the figures in order to achieve higher funding?

  Mr Davies: The difficulty is that system does not exist at the moment. I think it is widely accepted that the current system for using population figures to determine funding is inadequate to cope with the speed of migration and, as we have seen, I think that is a pretty well shared view. The question is what to do about it. One interesting question is whether there are any local sources of income which could, in theory, respond more rapidly to changes in local population and nationally set targets—whether there are possibilities there—so you are drawn to Council Tax collection from some of the properties that we have been discussing, which is a complex area given the nature of the tenancies, but also issues of local authority charging for services. We have recently reported on that as a significant source of income for local authorities and ought to figure in the deliberations around how we generate the resources to serve the needs of this rapidly changing population.

  Mr Blake-Herbert: I was going to say, it is right that they are calculated nationally by someone like the Office of National Statistics, so it is not about local authorities inflating them locally to suit their own needs, and, to be fair, the Office of National Statistics have a very hard job in doing that. The key part there is about looking at other data sources that exist, even if it is to Q and A their statistics. For example, one of the ones they will not use is child benefit data, because they say it is a huge under count of children when, according to the ONS, there are less children living in Slough than the number of children being paid child benefit. So it is about that Q and A element and trying to get that right.



 
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