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Baroness Hanham: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his explanation of the contents of this Bill, which by and large affects the greater control of the private housing sector. However, there is no legislation now in the housing arena that will not need to be judged against the background of Kate Barker's report and, of course, the sustainable communities policies. There are a number of provisions in the Bill that affect the supply of housing, as the Minister indicated in his last sentences.
The introduction of home information packs and house condition reports has caused the most comment. That policy formed a significant part of the Homes Bill in 2001, but was dropped when it became apparent that there was so much opposition to it that the rest of the Bill, which dealt with homelessness, was in danger of being lost. In view of this history, it is interesting that the Government have returned to the fray in the face, still, of considerable hostility from the professionals involved in the sale of houses.
The potential of a licensing regime for houses in multiple occupation has also been around for some time, and some authorities are doing that on a voluntary basis. We do not deny that there are cases of appallingly managed housing in the private rented sector, but there are already many remedies available to local authorities if they are prepared to use them, through environmental enforcement, routine inspection, building and fire regulations. While not opposing the thrust of the proposals for licensing and registration of houses in multiple occupation, we are concerned at the amount of time this could take to introduce. The example of Scotland, where the scheme has still not been fully implemented, is not encouraging.
The properties that will be encompassed by the licensing are important, as are the costs of both administration and licensing itself, and the definitions of houses in multiple occupation. That could, and does in the Bill, include flats or houses which are shared by young people, but might also encompass flats and houses for young people that in the course of their early working lives or student days are owned and let to them by one set of parents. We want to be careful that we do not put too many people into this registration.
In a document published recently by the National Landlords Association, an analysis of fire fatalities in houses in multiple occupation concludes that even if legislation, such as that before us today, was in place, none of the fires analysed would have been prevented. The more prevalent factor seems to have been the vulnerability of the people in the properties, and this aspect may need to be looked at in more detail.
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The maintenance of a register of houses in multiple occupation is not controversial, but the provisions for the raising of standards by the introduction of the housing health and safety rating system needs more explanation, and I am glad to hear that there will be an opportunity to discuss that outside the House. In particular, we want to explore in Committee how housing standards can encompass health conditions without their implementation becoming unnecessarily onerous. Grants for social housing to private developers, rather than, as at present to registered social landlords, even if administered by the Housing Corporation, is a new development. It raises questions about the assurances that will be available that housing provided in this way will be used for affordable housing, whether for key workers or others awaiting low-cost housing, the management of such housing, and whether it is intended that such provision will be largely for sale, shared ownership, or accommodation managed by the developer or a management company, rather than a registered social landlord. The Minister touched on the licensing of landlords for low-occupancy areas, which are clearly causing problems and concern. There are other concerns on the other side of this, and those relate to the clauses on anti-social behaviour and the impact that those might have on private landlords. We will need, if we may, to explore that further as well.
The Government have already tinkered with the right to buy, by reducing the amount of the discount available in a number of local authorities. That situation has adversely affected, and will affect further, the possibility of selling local authority property and creating, even in a small way, a greater social mix on estates. Where there are abuses of the current provisions they need to be addressed. So long as what is proposed does not turn out to be a further assault on the right to buy system, it will have our conditional support.
Since the Bill was considered in the other place, the Government have announced their intention of introducing measures in the House to strengthen the law on the return of tenants' depositsI was glad to hear the Minister confirm that todayand to enable local authorities compulsorily to take over, license and let empty properties.
While empty homes are an affront to those who have no home of their own, the definitions of empty homes will have to be carefully scrutinised. It is one thing to repair and bring back into use housing that has been left vacant for, say, structural regeneration purposes; but it is quite another where propertiesgenuinely owned either as second homes or as pied-à-terres of visitors from overseas, and vacant for considerable periodscould potentially be classified as empty, but it would clearly be a travesty to do so. The details of these provisions will be all-important, and I recognise that the Minister has acknowledged that.
There is one further matter that I will wish to raise as a possible amendment to the Bill, which lies within the park homes measures. I am conscious that these have been sought for a long time, and that the noble Lord, Lord Graham, in particular has fought long and hard to bring some semblance of security to those who
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live in them. Indeed, one of the first debates I ever took part in from the Front Bench was on just this matterthere were three of us in the Chamber altogetherand it struck me then that it was extremely important.
The same legal protections for security of tenure and freedom from harassment which this Bill brings forward need to be as applicable to those who reside in permanently moored houseboats. The problems are the same as for park homes, and while I know that discussions have taken place with the Minister, Keith Hill, they have so far not had any tangible results. I will table amendments to bring that matter forward for further discussion. I should declare here that some of the moorings are in Chelseapart of the borough in which I am an elected councillor, so I am putting that interest forwardbut by no means all of them; they are countrywide.
The most contentious provisions in the Bill are those relating to home information packs and house condition reports, which the current Government apparently believe will speed up the sale of houses and reduce the cost. Evidence of both seems at present to be remarkably slim, despite the Minister's happy experience, which I know he is going to tell us about, if not today, then on some future occasion. There are more issues raised than we can even touch on today, but in Committee we will be moving amendments to ensure the packs are not compulsory, and that they do not have to be produced on the first day of sale. We do not believe that these packs will be cost-neutral, and indeed at the moment the estimate of their cost comes to anywhere between £600 and £1,200. There are also great concerns about the length of the life of the information packs and about how often they will have to be renewed if, for example, a house is not sold at the earliest moment. We will also wish to discuss the relevance of the packs to new properties that already have a 10-year builder's guarantee and to properties that are being auctioned.
There are deep concerns about the whole regulatory process; about the difficulty of ensuring that there are sufficient properly qualified surveyors to carry out a survey that can be relied on not only by the vendor but, especially, by the purchasers and the mortgage company; and about whether an NVQ is an adequate qualification, particularly where surveys are currently carried out by qualified surveyors. There are also concerns about the regulation and inspection regime required to ensure that standards are met and maintained and about how a reliable insurance scheme can be established to protect all parties from an incompetent surveyor.
It is clear from the briefings that we have received that the Consumers' Association is entirely in favour of home information packs and that practically no other body is. Already, we have had more discussions on those provisions than on any of the others, and they will justify considerable time and thought.
We will also consider the desirability of providing a scheme for the registration of estate agents. Among the professionals involved in the sale of houses, estate agents are the only parties who are not regulated. Although few
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may be unscrupulous, it seems iniquitous that those who deal with such an important area of someone's lifethe largest financial commitment that people are likely to makeshould not be the subject of some form of registration. Subject to our discussions, we will consider tabling amendments to implement it.
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